South China Sea Dispute
Cartoon by Roni Santiago

Recent developments in the South China Sea dispute indicate that China is at the losing end. First such development is a ruling by the Arbitration Tribunal (based in the Hague, Netherlands) on the case filed by the Philippines against China.

The tribunal ruled that it has jurisdiction or authority to hear the merits of the case through which the Philippines is seeking to stop China from reclaiming reefs and atolls in the disputed waters. The arbitral body, a creation of the United Nations, will soon start the hearing.

In deciding to hear the case on its merits, the body rejected China’s claim that it owns all the islets, reefs and shoals in the South China Sea. It also frowned on China’s assertion that the Philippines has “not negotiated enough” on the conflicting territorial claims.

Another development in the dispute is America’s recent action of sending an aircraft carrier near the reclaimed reefs which China claims as parts of its territory. The Chinese military had earlier warned it would take appropriate action if the United States proceeds with its plan to deploy a naval vessel in the disputed areas which the US claims to be along international sea lanes. The US is trying to uphold freedom of navigation.

The carrier was in the area for a few days, but there was no adversarial action taken by China against it.

By now President Xi and other top Chinese officials should have read the handwriting on the wall: Their bullying, predatory moves are not being tolerated by the international community.

But China’s momentary failure to make good its threat against the US naval vessel might just be a lull in the storm. It badly needs the rich resources of the reclaimed reefs and atolls especially at this time that its economy is on the brink of collapse.

Philippine Senior Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio, who is well versed with the issues over the dispute, categorically said that China wants to tap the rich resources of the Spratly islands. An attempt by a Philippine company to conduct oil drilling in the area a few months ago was vehemently opposed by China.

From our viewpoint, it looks like the recent developments are favorable to the Philippines. And if China continues to ignore the Philippine case and opts not to participate in the hearing, the tribunal would certainly rule in favor of the Philippines.

The favorable ruling by the international arbitration body would place the Philippines on a moral high ground and would be able to draw the support of other nations. It would also give credence to the common perception that China is acting like a bully to intimidate its neighbors.

The ruling would isolate China from the rest of the world.