Two and a half years ago, the Philippines took an unprecedented step to shake up the territorial dispute roiling the waters of the South China Sea. For years, six nations – including the Philippines and China –have wrestled over control of a smattering of islands and reefs dotting the oceanic expanse. At times, the dispute has been heated, even violent, but it largely played out within the four corners of the sea itself. That changed when Manila brought the dispute into the halls of the Peace Palace, the home of the Permanent Court of Arbitration. The island nation legalized the conflict by instituting arbitral proceedings against China, essentially suing Beijing for its allegedly aggressive and “unlawful” behavior in the South China Sea.
The case has meant much to many. To the Philippines, it bears out “the conviction that principles trump power; that law triumphs over force; and that right prevails over might.” Others have suggested that the suit implicates the vitality of the maritime dispute settlement system, or even that it is really a case about the validity of international law itself.
But there’s a chance that the case will be stopped in its tracks long before the tribunal has the opportunity to take on any of these issues. If China gets its way, the court will rule that it lacks authority to hear the Philippines’s claims because they exceed the bounds of its jurisdiction.
That would be a mistake. Although the Chinese government has crafted a compelling legal argument against the tribunal’s jurisdiction, it is unpersuasive and should be rejected. Not only would a contrary holding make bad law, but it would also deprive Manila and the other smaller claimants of one of their last few tools against their ambitious northern neighbor.