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Philippines will leverage on favourable ruling

The Philippines just scored a historic legal victory against China in the South China Sea. The much-anticipated decision came more than three years after the South-east Asian country filed for compulsory arbitration under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos) against China, which boycotted the whole proceedings and has refused to acknowledge its jurisdiction.

The Philippines won on almost all of its arguments against China, which has bitterly dismissed the verdict as "null and void". The arbitration outcome marks a significant setback for China.

For years, China has sought to procedurally undermine the Philippines' arbitration manoeuvre by invoking jurisdictional and admissibility concerns. In its position papers, China has repeatedly argued that Unclos and arbitration bodies under its aegis lack the mandate to oversee what are essentially sovereignty-related disputes. China also cited exemption clauses under Unclos, arguing that it has opted out of arbitration proceedings that concern its sovereignty claims.

Beijing also stepped up its diplomatic counter-manoeuvres.

 

For instance, it solicited the support of up to 40 countries on the issue, with at least eight of them - mostly landlocked African countries - openly rejecting Manila's legal manoeuvre. It also announced its decision to set up alternative international arbitration bodies to counter what it describes as Western-dominated existing legal institutions. China also engaged in a systematic effort to denigrate and distort the nature of the Philippines' arbitration proceedings at The Hague.

China threatened to withdraw from Unclos, while aggressively lobbying members of the tribunal to drop the case.

The Arbitral Tribunal, however, stood its ground. It ruled China's doctrine of "historic rights", a foundation of its nine-dash line claims, as "incompatible" with prevailing international law.

The verdict also makes it clear that China "violated the Philippines' sovereign rights" by interfering with its sovereign rights, particularly its ability to exploit natural resources such as fisheries stock and hydrocarbon deposits within its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) as provided by Unclos.

The verdict sets a strong precedent for South-east Asian countries such as Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia to contemplate, if not actually file, similar arbitration cases against China, which has stepped up its para-military manoeuvres and fishing activities across the South China Sea basin.

Much will also depend on the Philippines' newly elected President Rodrigo Duterte, who has made it clear that he will not flaunt the verdict to taunt China. Eager to revive bilateral ties and avoid conflict with Beijing, which has offered massive infrastructure investments in recent weeks, the Duterte administration shunned any triumphalist statement on the verdict, even if many Filipinos cheered what they see as unequivocal moral victory.

The Philippine government will likely try to leverage the highly favourable verdict in prospective bilateral talks with China. In exchange for not issuing a strongly worded statement - calling for Chinese compliance and international assistance to enforce the verdict - the Duterte administration will seek certain concrete concessions from China. It could, for instance, ask China to provide greater leeway for Filipino fishermen straddling disputed waters and a guarantee that China will neither establish military facilities on the Scarborough Shoal, located only 110 nautical miles from Philippine shorelines, nor impose an exclusion zone in the Spratly chain of islands.

But this will surely not sit well with America and other allies, who expect a strong statement from the country that initiated the arbitration proceedings. What is clear, however, is that the Duterte administration's diplomatic mettle will be tested like never before. The foul-mouthed former provincial mayor has suddenly found himself in the middle of a high-stakes global geopolitical chessboard.

If China refuses to abide by the verdict, it will be branded an outlaw, undermining its longstanding claim to regional leadership as a responsible power.

Most likely, the Philippine government will shun a strongly worded statement regarding the arbitration verdict in order to revive long-frayed bilateral ties with China and seek tangible concessions on the ground.

What is clear, however, is that China's actions in the South China Sea are in contravention of international law. That is now beyond dispute.

•The writer is a political science professor at De La Salle University in the Philippines, and the author of Asia's New Battlefield: US, China, And The Struggle For Western Pacific (Zed, London).

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 14, 2016, with the headline 'Philippines will leverage on favourable ruling'. Print Edition | Subscribe