Magnetic Rocks, Part II: Assessing the Philippines' Legal Strategy in the South China Sea

May 20, 2014 Topic: Military Strategy Region: Philippines

Magnetic Rocks, Part II: Assessing the Philippines' Legal Strategy in the South China Sea

A modern-day David vs. Goliath: the Philippines vs. China

Conclusion: A Sobering Note

While China dominated South China Sea negotiations for many years thanks to its shrewd strategy and material strength, it has increasingly lost control as smaller claimants like the Philippines have adopted a more proactive and even confrontational posture. So far, Beijing has struggled to handle these small-scale provocations in a sustainable way: although it has been able to use its economic and political clout to push back against them, it has done so at the cost of its regional reputation.

At the same time, however, the smaller claimants cannot declare victory yet either. For the most part, the Philippine strategy has been ineffective at coaxing concessions from China. Admittedly, Manila has hit upon a new—and potentially more potent—approach in recent years through its turn to international law. Indeed, China has shown an unheard of willingness to compromise over the Philippine arbitration (although Manila has thus far refused to negotiate, presumably in the expectation that it can get a better deal in the future). But as the case progresses, China will become increasingly desperate to halt the arbitration by any means necessary. The longer that Manila holds out, the more tempted China will be to overcome the Philippines’s stubbornness through strength rather than settlement. Beijing may also decide to gamble on the outcome of the arbitration, especially because the tribunal could easily find that it lacks jurisdiction to decide the case. So while Manila has gained the tactical edge, it remains to be seen whether the country can keep it.

Regardless of how the arbitration turns out, though, this dynamic bodes ill for the region’s stability, as the events of the past several of weeks unfortunately illustrate. Neither side wants the dispute to descend into bloodshed, but neither party is willing to concede. Worse, the strategies of both parties depend on the other’s reluctance to engage in open conflict. China assumes that the Philippines would be unwilling to provoke a naval engagement that it would almost surely lose, while Manila hopes that Beijing would not choose to inflame the region with a brazen display of its military strength.

In some sense, both parties are probably correct. But neither state has full control over how events develop on the ground, particularly as both China and the Philippines often allow local forces to operate on a long leash. While this tactic can demonstrate commitment and credibility, it also risks igniting a powder keg amidst a dispute characterized by the sparks of nationalism and miscalculation. And as history has demonstrated, only one spark is necessary for the keg to blow.

Sean Mirski is a second-year student at Harvard Law School, where he is Supreme Court Chair of the Harvard Law Review. He is also the co-editor of Crux of Asia: China, India and the Emerging Global Order.

Image: Wikimedia Commons