Undaunted by China’s aggressive rhetoric and expansionist claims to nearly all of the South China Sea, the Philippines has filed a legal case against Beijing with an international arbitration tribunal in The Hague. This is an appropriate venue to resolve a major dispute peacefully and in accord with global norms. The strategy of the Philippines has implications for others with similar claims against China — Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan — and thus deserves support from the international community.
The rivalry between China and the Philippines is bitter and potentially dangerous, with frequent face-offs at sea over the disputed islands and rocks. It is not hard to imagine incidents spiraling out of control. In the latest episode, a Philippine vessel on Saturday outmaneuvered the Chinese Coast Guard and resupplied a ship that has been stranded for 15 years on a tiny reef called the Second Thomas Shoal. The Philippines intentionally grounded the vessel in 1999 to stake claim to the reef, and it has since served as, effectively, a military outpost. The Chinese ships were trying to block a delivery of fresh food and troops from reaching it.
The Second Thomas Shoal is at the heart of the legal brief filed with the Permanent Court of Arbitration. It argues that the Shoal, known as Ayungin in the Philippines and Ren’ai Reef in China, is 105 nautical miles from the Philippines, well inside the 200 nautical miles of an exclusive economic zone that allows the Philippines to control and exploit the waters around the shoal under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. A ruling is expected sometime next year.