The Philippines' decision to contest China's vast claims over the South China Sea was advanced when it recently submitted a formal plea before the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (Itlos). A 4,000-page, 10-volume memorial contains Manila's arguments, evidence and maps to support its case against China's nine-dash line, which encloses 90 per cent of the South China Sea. Those expansive claims have put Beijing at loggerheads with Manila and others who are determined to defend what they too believe to be legitimately theirs.
That the Philippines has gone about the defence by appealing to international law might be dismissed as an instance of a weaker country taking its case to the world because it cannot hope to win it militarily against a far stronger country. But that precisely is what international law is for. The law exists as an impartial forum where countries big and small can present and argue their cases on legal merit. So it is with Itlos,which has no conceivable reason to be partial to any side.
By taking its case to the United Nations tribunal, Manila has secured a tactical victory, if nothing else yet. When the tribunal rules, it will clarify the legal position for the world to see. Its ruling will be legally binding, whether or not it can be enforced. That the Philippines has submitted its detailed case in the face of acute Chinese displeasure constitutes a political victory, both at home and among its international partners who are watching how it behaves under Chinese pressure.
By responding angrily to Manila's move, Beijing has demonstrated a certain impatience bordering on intemperance that is troubling. Indeed, it has declared flatly that it will not budge even if the Philippines wins its case. China's dismissive attitude does not sit well with the reputation which it is building of being a responsible member of the international community, since it gave up economic isolationism and political prickliness to rejoin the global mainstream after the Cultural Revolution. It is in Beijing's interest to counter perceptions of high-handedness that might erode the welcome which countries great and small have extended to China as it took its rightful place in regional and global affairs. China remains an invaluable international partner as the world's economic centre shifts to Asia.
With the issue before Itlos, the Philippines and China should strive to reduce tensions by giving each other a wide berth in disputed waters. The use of paramilitary vessels to harass fishermen and laying siege to a small band of Filipino troops on the Second Thomas Shoal might unwittingly tip into direct military conflict if both sides do not exercise care.