The Philippines has been the feistiest of the disputants against China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, and against the way Beijing is securing them. The country filed for international arbitration of the territorial issues last year, and this week the formal hearings will finally begin in The Hague. China, for its part, has forsworn complying or even really acknowledging the legitimacy of the international court to adjudicate the issue, and it’s promised not to show up. The Military Times reports:
China is standing pat on its decision to reject arbitration by an international tribunal that will begin formal hearings this week to resolve a long-seething feud with the Philippines over the South China Sea, Beijing’s ambassador to Manila said Monday. […]The dayslong [sic] hearings are crucial because the Philippines’ complaint against China could no longer be heard if the tribunal declares it has no jurisdiction over the case.Chinese Ambassador Zhao Jianhua told reporters in Manila that his government would stick to its decision not to participate in the arbitration and instead renewed China’s offer to resolve the conflict through one-on-one negotiations with the Philippines.“Our position is consistent. We’ll not accept nor participate in the arbitration,” Zhao said. “Our door for bilateral consultation and negotiation is still open and will be open forever.”
Manila’s arbitration play is probably a self-conscious Hail Mary to try to get the international community’s military (America’s, especially) as backup, which, needless to say, would change how China thought about its options. However, even if the court rules as favorably as possible for Manila, that won’t settle the issue. It may, in fact, exacerbate it. Ultimately, China wants to deal with the dispute on a ‘bilateral’ basis because bilaterally, everyone knows whose army can steamroll whom.International law has a way of not mattering unless it prescribes something that was already going to happen anyway. When it tries to seriously change things, it usually just demonstrates its own impotence and its subordinate position to geopolitical interests. (Anyone remember the Kellogg-Briand Pact signed in 1928, through which the “international community” outlawed war? How exactly did that work out?) History suggests a combination of hard power and smart geopolitical bargaining (based tacitly or explicitly on the threat of using hard power)—the facts on the ground— usually decides how conflicts play out.Given that, it doesn’t look like such a banner week for Manila. Business Insider reports, for example, that Chinese-marked buoys have started showing up in disputed waters, and Chinese activity on the newest of the Spratly Islands and on the Scarborough Shoal continues apace (China wrested control of that latter shoal from the Philippines in a tense and public 2012 standoff).Manila clearly knows this, at least in part, and the country’s military spending has just got a major bump, as Reuters reports:
The Philippines plans to ramp up military spending over the next 13 years, earmarking more than $20 billion to modernize its forces in the face of Beijing’s maritime ambitions in the disputed South China Sea, a top air force official told Reuters.Major-General Raul del Rosario, military chief of plans, said the blueprint includes installing radars and sensors, and buying equipment such as submarines, frigates, fighters, surveillance planes and missile systems.“By the time, we complete this plan, we will have complete coverage of the South China Sea,” said del Rosario, a former fighter pilot, showing the military’s detailed plan that was approved on Friday. […]He said the ambitious plan was initiated in 2013, but top brass had only approved overall spending of 998 billion pesos ($22.11 billion) last week.
The Philippines, of course, can’t afford a navy that could give the PLA a run for its money. But this is a step in the right direction. If all of China’s opponents in the South China Sea disputes invested so heavily in their militaries, and if they work together along with U.S. backing, it could help rebalance the power dynamics in the region to China’s detriment.