By: Elena Grace Flores
A key factor that could change the equation of the consequences of this ruling is how the Philippines’ new President Rodrigo Duterte decides to respond. His predecessor Benigno Aquino III’s government filed the case, straining Manila’s relations with Beijing, but Duterte has shown readiness to mend frosty ties with China. While Duterte has made critical remarks against the U.S., he has pointed out the benefits of nurturing friendly relations with Beijing, including a Chinese offer of financing railway projects in the Philippines. Duterte’s rise has given China an opening to make inroads in one of America’s closest security allies.
Last week, Duterte said his government stood ready to talk to China if it gets a favorable ruling. “When it’s favorable to us, let’s talk,” he said. “We are not prepared to go to war, war is a dirty word.”
It remains to be seen, however, how far Duterte can stray from Manila’s critical stance on China’s territorial assertiveness, given his country’s close ties with the U.S. and growing nationalist sentiment against China’s actions.
Jay Batongbacal, an expert on South China Sea issues at the state-run University of the Philippines, said the government should avoid revealing its cards ahead of potential negotiations with Beijing, “otherwise you lose the leverage that you have.” Left-wing activists protested at the Chinese consulate in metropolitan Manila on Monday, urging China to leave what they said were other countries’ territories.
“We’re calling on our brothers in Southeast Asia that this call for a ‘Chexit,’ or China exit, now is not only for Filipinos but for all to call on China to respect our territorial integrity,” said protest leader Mong Palatino.
Experts say the outcome of the dispute could provide ammunition for other countries involved in disputes with China.
Six governments have overlapping territorial claims in the South China Sea – China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei. In addition, China’s nine-dash line overlaps waters that are part of Indonesia’s internationally recognized exclusive economic zone. “This is a time for China not to keep pushing forward too aggressively because they could embolden Vietnam and Indonesia to file a case as well,” Glaser said. Regardless, the ruling is unlikely to stop China from continuing to pursue more effective control over the sea space and airspace of the South China Sea, Glaser said.
Over the last few months, the U.S. has held combined exercises by two Navy aircraft carrier strike groups off the coast of the Philippines and freedom of navigation cruises near China’s man-made islands to assert its presence in the Western Pacific. Chinese state media have accused Washington of trying to turn the South China Sea “into a powder keg” and warned it not to underestimate China’s determination to defend its territorial claims. Chinese warships, fighter jets and submarines have held live-fire war games as part of what the People’s Liberation Army Navy called routine exercises in the week running up to the tribunal’s ruling, drills that were seen at least in part responding to the U.S. presence.
“There’s a real game of nerves going on here with China perhaps assuming that the U.S. is bluffing and the U.S. hoping that China will actually not test American resolve,” Australian National University’s White said; as reported by Global Nation Inquirer.