China vs. the Philippines: Will International Law Resolve South China Sea Disputes?


Will the 21st-century global order be led primarily by might and military muscle or rights and norms? We may get an answer in the near future.

The Philippines’ quest for peacefully resolving territorial disputes in the South China Sea has entered a critical stage. After more than two years of hard work and extensive preparations, culminating in the thousand-page-long memorial, Manila has the chance to convince the arbitral tribunal at The Hague that its case deserves to be heard.

The ultimate aim is to ensure all claimant countries honor their treaty commitments under prevailing international legal regimes, particularly the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which has been ratified by the Philippines (1984) and China (2006) alike. The key hurdle, however, is the question of jurisdiction: That is to say, whether the arbitral tribunal, formed under the aegis of the UNCLOS, has the mandate to rule on the Philippines’ case against China.

The Philippines won’t be able to even defend the merit of its case, unless it convinces the court that compulsory arbitration is the way forward. What is at stake is not only the merits of the Philippines’ arguments, and the questionable character of China’s sweeping claims, but also the very credibility and viability of international law as the primary arbiter for resolving seemingly intractable territorial spats.

This is precisely why the whole international community is anxiously following the ongoing proceedings at The Hague, with Asian countries such as Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and Japan sending observers to the hearings.

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