A rusted US-made World War 2 warship stands at The Philippines’ lonely outpost amid China’s prowling battleships and frenetic island-building activities in the South China Sea.
The Philippines deliberately grounded the BRP Sierra Madre in the late 1990s on the Second Thomas Shoal, a chain of islets around shallow waters, to mark its claims on the Spratly archipelago.
China calls the archipelago Nansha islands and claims it along with nearly the entire SCS. Since 1999, the rat-infested warship has housed elite Filipino marine forces who have watched Chinese navy and coastguard ships becoming more aggressive over the decade and in recent years, reclaiming land and building artificial islands with airstrips.
China, Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan (which China claims as a breakaway province) have claims and counter-claims over islands, shoals and reefs in the SCS.
In the East China Sea, China is locked in separate but similar island-claiming dispute with Japan. US hasn’t remained quiet. Armed with its military pact with the Philippines and better ties with Vietnam, Washington has not only repeatedly spoken on the “freedom of navigation” in the SCS but has also dispatched warships and aircraft to test how choppy the situation was in the region.
In 2015, Manila realised that a crumbling warship will not be able to hold off the world’s largest armed forces – and Beijing’s money-fueled international diplomacy -- for long. It decided to march to the UN International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) under the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague with maps, copies of claims and complaints.
The Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague is set to announce its final decision on Tuesday.
The International Crisis Group said China claims all land features in the SCS and its claims “slices into the Philippines’ claimed (maritime) Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). The Philippines claims about 50 land features in the Spratly island chain and the Scarborough Shoal.’’
“Manila opted to sue China, firstly on the jurisdiction of ITLOS on the maritime dispute and secondly on the legality of the historical claim of China's nine-dash line. The legal track proceeded after a reality check on the part of the Philippines that it could not level off with the strength of a giant neighbour. There is an asymmetry of military capability between China as Goliath and the Philippines as David in the maritime dispute,” Professor Chester Cabalza fromNational Defence College of the Philippines told HT over email.
Ahead of the verdict, China dismissed it, particularly as there’s a possibility that it might go against Beijing. “It is a sheer delusion to expect to force China into accepting the decision via diplomatic channels or public fanfare,” foreign ministry spokesperson Hong Lei said. “The arbitration was unilaterally initiated by the “President (Benigno S) Aquino administration and distorts the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), challenges the dignity of the international law and undermines the rule of law in essence,” Hong said.
Zhu Feng from the China Center for Collaborative Studies of the SCS at Nanjing University told state media that the new Duterte government needs to refrain from hyping the arbitration ruling, not rely on it as the only basis for settling the disputes, and actively improve bilateral relations. “The most expected action from the Duterte government ...would be to drop the case in the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague.”
To China, that’s the only way out because as Hong put it: “China will never change its stance.”
The decision will be keenly followed. Global trade worth $5 trillion passes through the region annually, and SCS contains nearly 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in proved and probable reserves, as per US Energy Information Administration.
If it is in favour of China, Beijing is likely to flex its diplomatic and strategic muscles more in the region.
“The increasing militarisation in the SCS definitely affects trade, commerce, diplomacy, ecological resources and power relations among major actors in the region including the US, China, Japan, and India. Global security is also at risk in the SCS conundrum, a choke point for trade and security, among claimant countries,” Cabalza said.
If Manila emerges winner, the war of words between China and other claimants is likely to escalate with Beijing expected to dismiss the decision and increase its show of power in the region.
Cabalza expects India to be involved.
“India has been playing its part to influence Asian neighbours to resolve their maritime differences peacefully. As a naval power itself, India has the moral responsibility to push for 'freedom of navigation' as a global interest in the hotly contested Indo-Pacific region. No state has the monopoly of seas and oceans. We need maritime and international laws to prevail in attaining an equi-balance of powers in an evolving multipolar world,” he said.