The Philippines vs. China in the South China Sea: A Legal Showdown


The next stage in the Philippines’ closely-watched arbitration case against China’s maritime claims will come in March when Manila’s lawyers submit their answers to questions posed last month by the five judge panel overseeing the case. The Philippines has put together a clever case, one that seeks to skirt China’s exemptions to compulsory arbitration as allowed by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). But the case is not a slam dunk, and that might be for the best.

The heart of the Philippines’ case is an argument that China’s infamous nine-dash line does not qualify as a valid maritime claim. If the Arbitral Tribunal finds that it has jurisdiction in any part of the case, it is hard to imagine that it will not agree with Manila on this point. And that ruling—that Beijing is legally obligated to lay out its claims based on maritime entitlements from coastlines and islands, not via dashes arbitrarily drawn on a map—could be enormously beneficial for all those with an interest in the South China Sea.

Despite Beijing’s insistence that it will not recognize any award the court makes, China’s leaders might be persuaded to clarify the country’s South China Sea claims even while publicly refusing to obey the court. This would be much the same as how the United States under the Clinton administration complied with much of an International Court of Justice ruling in a case brought by Nicaragua that the Reagan administration had earlier rebuffed.


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