Hague decision’s value lies in its raising of Manila’s leverage
On July 12 last year, an arbitral tribunal in The Hague handed the Philippines a sweeping victory in a case it filed challenging China’s expansive claims to the South China Sea.
The tribunal struck down China’s “historic rights” to two-thirds of these waters. It ruled that China’s claims are inconsistent with an international treaty that uses land features, rather than historic rights, in determining sea borders.
Hundreds of anti-China activists held a victory party after the ruling was announced just after noon that day. Drums were banged and there was dancing at a Manila restaurant.
A thousand balloons in the red, blue, white and yellow colours of the Philippine flag were released, as everyone who saw it chanted “Chexit” – a play on the phrase “China exit” – as they pressed calls for China to retire its claims.
But at a news briefing the same day, then Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay was sombre. He called for “restraint and sobriety” even as the ruling was hailed as a “triumph of the rule of law”, and hopes were high it would roll back China’s dramatic push to assert its claims with a massive island- building programme in the South China Sea’s southern half.
That set the tone for how the new government of President Rodrigo Duterte intended to treat the ruling.
In the months that followed, the ruling would gradually be set aside, as Mr Duterte wooed China and moved away from the United States, partly out of spite, but generally out of pragmatism.