The South China Sea Showdown Heads to Court

July 16, 2015 Topic: Security Region: Asia Tags: ChinaPhilippinesSouth China SeaJustice

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?

There is also the option of the formation of a “conciliation commission” (under Annex V of UNCLOS) as an alternative mechanism to address the Philippine-China dispute, especially if the Tribunal refuses to consummate the compulsory arbitration option. But the Aquino administration—in contrast to how Vietnam and Japan have been approaching China—has rejected any bilateral engagement with China on the grounds that there is no point in diplomacy with a power which is solely bent on expansion rather than compromise.

The ultimate challenge, however, is the actual scramble for territory on the ground. The protracted legal procedures haven’t prevented China from further consolidating its claims across the South China Sea. By putting almost all its eggs in the legal basket—even to the point of temporarily postponing the refurbishment of its facilities in the Spratlys last year—the Philippines may have neglected the necessary step of negotiating at least certain confidence-building measures (i.e., hotlines and incidents in the high seas agreements), which are crucial to preventing unwanted escalation with China. The Philippines will also need to ramp up its investment in its long-neglected Coast Guard and accelerate efforts at developing a minimum deterrence capability, while soliciting maximum military support from allies such as the United States and Japan without foreclosing the option of diplomacy with China.  

Richard Javad Heydarian is an Assistant Professor in international affairs and political science at De La Salle University, and previously served as a policy advisor at the Philippine House of Representatives. As a specialist on Asian geopolitics and economic affairs, he has written for or interviewed by Al Jazeera, Asia Times, BBC, Bloomberg, Foreign Affairs, The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, The Huffington Post, The Diplomat, The Financial Times, and USA TODAY, among other leading international publications. He is the author of How Capitalism Failed the Arab World: The Economic Roots and Precarious Future of the Middle East Uprisings (Zed, London), and the forthcoming book Asia’s New Battlefield: US, China, and the Struggle for Western Pacific (Zed, 2015). You can follow him on Twitter: @Richeydarian.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/DoD photo by Donna Miles​