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Will the Philippines Throw the Hague's Ruling in the Trash?

Walter Russell Mead

The press is going wild today about the ruling of the international court in the Hague, which went even farther than predicted in throwing cold water on China’s shaky claims to control vast stretches of international waters in the strategically vital South China Sea. The WSJ reports:

The tribunal at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague said China couldn’t claim historic rights in all the waters within a “nine-dash” line used by Beijing to delineate its claims.

That was the most significant element of an unprecedented legal challenge to China’s claims that was brought in 2013 by the Philippines, one of five governments whose claims in the South China Sea overlap with China’s under the nine-dash line.

China didn’t take part in the tribunal, which it said had no jurisdiction on the case, and Chinese officials immediately said that Beijing won’t comply with the ruling, a position it had repeated for weeks.

In a further blow for Beijing, the tribunal said China isn’t entitled to an exclusive economic zone, or EEZ, extending up to 200 nautical miles from any outcrop in the Spratly Islands archipelago, and said Beijing had violated the Philippines’ sovereignty in building artificial islands. It also took Beijing to task for failing to stop Chinese fishermen from harvesting endangered sea turtles and coral and impeding Philippine fishing and oil exploration.

Everyone is focusing on the ruling’s language, which is pretty tough on China, but less attention is being paid to the reality that the case hangs from pretty weak thread: the commitment of the Philippines to stand by the ruling.

The Philippines’ recently-elected President, Roberto Duterte, seems more interested in making deals with China than in standing as the spear tip of an international coalition against it. Before the election, he told reporters, “I would say to China, ‘do not claim anything here and I will not insist also that it is ours’. But then I will just keep (turn) a blind eye.”

Washington has spent a lot of resources strengthening its alliance with Manila over the past few years, selling old ships to bolster its navy and arranging for American troops to rotate through bases in the country. But it’s not at all clear that the Philippines is ready to play the role that the U.S. wants it to play. Unless the Obama administration wants to see its Asia policy fall into serious disarray, it needs to find a way to ensure that the Philippines thinks its interests are better served by standing with the international court than by cutting a deal with China.

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