Over the last year, it has become clear that China is determined to pursue its strategy of “salami slicing” in the South China Sea—gradually increasing its control through small moves that fall short of war. Beijing has not been deterred from this strategy by remonstrations from regional powers and the United States, increased military cooperation between rival claimants and Washington or its own push to improve relations with neighboring countries. The best bet for China’s neighbors to change its strategic calculus appears to be the approach of the Philippines: directly challenging Chinese territorial claims in international arbitration under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
On January 22, 2013, the Philippines filed a Notification and Statement of Claim at the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS), seeking to invalidate China’s nine-dash Line, which encompasses virtually the entire South China Sea (Notification and Statement of Claim: www.pia.gov.ph/news/piafiles/DFA-13-0211.pdf). A ruling is not expected prior to 2015, but the submission is already sending shockwaves across the region. While China has attempted to isolate Manila in punishment, Vietnam has announced plans to seek legal recourse against China, which is a sign of preliminary political success for Manila.