HOW FAR WILL THE DRAGON'S LAWYERS SWIM? HOW DEEP WILL THEY DIVE INTO THE MURKY WATERS OF INTERNATIONAL LAW THAT THE PHILIPPINES ARE LEADING THEM INTO?
The Dragon (China) has long been harassing its neighbors to surrender their ocean exclusive economic zones (EEZs) to the swimming reptile. China uses its Coast Guard as the point man in this exercise in intimidation that attempts to tip toe around international law. The Philippines has its issues over EEZs with other neighbors near their southern, and south eastern boundaries and each has some relevant points in international law. China has some relevant points in some of its dispute with Vietnam. But China's claims on the Spratly Islands especially within 200 miles of the Philippines are groundless in international law. In this game of intimidation all sides have a lot to lose if things degenerate into a shooting war as together these nations form their own most important trading block, and a serious trading block in global terms. Generally shooting has been avoided and the military posturing, harassment, and brinkmanship has stopped well short of Gun fire with a few notable exceptions. Occasionally the regional coat guards have have actually had a go at each other with water cannon. When the contest opened between the Dragon and the Philippines one Chinese general publicly stated that if the Philippine people and government simply considered the relative military strength of China compared to their own nation they would readily acquiesce to China's demands. The Philippine answer is visible at Ayungin Shoal where a hand full of marines have been in a stand off with the Chinese Coast Guard since 1999.
By offering constant proportional resistance for over nearly a decade and a half the Philippines while clearly militarily much smaller has pushed the dragon in to an undesirable position. The Philippines did not flinch when the Dragon applied economic pressure and instead turned to other trading partners most notably the United States and Japan to take up the slack when China curtailed tourist visits, stopped buying certain exports, and generally reduced trade with the Philippines. The lesson to other regional powers having similar difficulties with the Dragon has been to go outside the China led trading block. However no one in the region wants the trading block to cease. Regional prosperity for everyone including China depends on regional cooperation. But China's continuous thug state tactics at sea is putting the dragon in a Hobson's choice; they can keep insisting that they alone own and control the South China Sea and destroy their leadership in the regional trading block. Or they could agree to administration of the sea in conformance with the United Nations Law of the Sea Convention and the Association of South East Asian Nations agreements and resume regional leadership; or find themselves as the distrusted agent at the regional bargaining table where everyone else is trying to hedge their bets by currying other trading partners.
Over a year ago China tried to soften its image by filing a brief with a UN tribunal involving certain of its claims. Other regional nations filed counter briefs right away. The Philippines took their time and just recently filed a brief that amounts to a complaint against China. The Philippines has a strong case and China stands to be embarrassed and exposed as a law breaking thug. That's the short of it. We have links below for you legal beagles or simply fans of international law in which an ivy league legal mind examines and explains the relative arguments of both China and the Philippines. If you are seriously interested in what is happening out there in the China Seas we highly recommend the two articles below: