The South China Sea Showdown Heads to Court

The Philippines' quest to rein in China is based on legal maneuvers rather than warfare. Can it work?

Legal warfare (“lawfare”) in the South China Sea has reached a critical stage. The Philippines has gone full force in using the language of the law to rein in Chinese territorial claims, dispatching its top officials from across all branches of its government to the Arbitral Tribunal at The Hague. Bereft of any tangible capabilities to optimally defend its territorial rights, the Southeast Asian country has embarked on a years-long quest to peacefully manage its territorial disputes with China.

Banking on more than two years of extensive legal preparations, which gave birth to thousand-page-long memorial and supplemental arguments, the Philippines is trying to convince the arbitration body that the merits of its case deserve to be adjudicated upon. But beyond the ambit of Philippine-China territorial disputes, what is at stake is the necessity to ensure all modern nation-states adhere to their treaty commitments under prevailing legal principles. As signatories to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), China and the Philippines, which ratified the convention in 2006 and 1984 respectively, are expected to make maritime claims and resolve their disputes based on modern international law, not obscure doctrines from the pre-modern age or shady maps from the colonial era and/or those concocted by hyper-nationalist elements.

The Philippines, however, has to overcome a key obstacle: To prove that its case against China falls under the jurisdiction of arbitration bodies under the aegis of UNCLOS. The arbitration body, meanwhile, should exhibit that it is a viable mechanism to peacefully resolve disputes in accordance to a universally accepted and negotiated body of laws. Underlining the great importance of the ongoing arbitration, Japan, Malaysia, and Vietnam—nations that happen to also be locked into bitter territorial disputes with China—have sent observers to the hearing. It is a struggle over whether the 21st century global order will be defined by rights of nations and commonly-accepted norms of behavior or instead by the military might of belligerent powers.

Taking on China

The Philippines takes huge pride in becoming the first nation to have dared to employ compulsory arbitration (under Article 287 and Annex VII of UNCLOS) against mighty China. Its quest to leverage UNCLOS as an instrument to rein in China's territorial assertiveness has been praised by nations across the world, including the United States, which has not ratified the UNCLOS (thanks to intransigent legislators in the Senate), but observes its key elements as a matter of customary international law.

Though China has boycotted the entire proceedings—refusing to recognize the jurisdiction of UNCLOS vis-à-vis the South China Sea disputes—the arbitration proceedings (under Article 9, Annex VII) have nonetheless moved forward. Unable to stop the arbitration proceedings, and refusing to participate in it despite multiple opportunities to formally submit its counter-arguments, China has employed a variety of measures to discourage the Philippines from sticking to its course, from refusing to host (“disinviting”) Philippine President Benigno Aquino during the 2013 China-ASEAN Expo to employing various forms of intimidation in the contested areas as well as imposing a de facto investment siege on the Southeast Asian country.

In terms of the merit of its claims, it is doubtful whether China is confident of the legal validity of its sweeping claims under the notorious nine-dashed-line doctrine. As a leading European legal expert, Professor Alexander Proelß, recently told me, “I do not believe that China will manage to provide the necessary evidence concerning all territorial features and marine areas” it appears to be claiming across the South China Sea basin. Not only are China’s claims, based on the notion of “historical rights/waters,” well beyond its coastal waters and 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), they also clearly fall short of fulfilling requirements such as the explicit acquiescence of neighboring states as well as the continuous and effective demonstration of Chinese sovereignty/occupation over all of the groups of islands, from the Paracels to the Spratlys, within the nine-dashed-line.