All indications are the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the International Court at the Hague will tomorrow rule for the Philippines with respect to its sea territory encompassed by the Scarborough Shoal forcibly occupied by China. The court is expected to reaffirm the UNCLOS standards and hence the Philippine claims (and logically, also Vietnamese, Malayasian, Brunei-ian claims in that expanse of water) rather than supporting China’s case based on vague historically infirm assertions sourced to the tumultuous civil war period in China. The Arbitration Court will parri passu also rule on the legality of the artificial islands China created literally overnight to buttress its expansive claims and now already put to military use with the installation of radars and other sensor posts.
It is equally certain Beijing will disdainfully dismiss the Court ruling as irrelevant and violative of the understanding it says it has with Manila requiring the resolution of maritime territorial disputes on a strictly bilateral basis. (Shades of the India-Pakistan dispute over Kashmir here!) What will be significant to see is what the US will do to back the Hague verdict beyond what it is already doing in the South China Sea and, more importantly, how Beijing will react to the US acting as a self-appointed sheriff.
Leading up to the Hague verdict, Washington had sometime back rejected imposition of an ADZ (Air Identification Zone) by China and had warned it’d routinely ignore it. This was followed up by the mounting of freedom of navigation patrols. These were challenges China did not contest. The US Navy then followed up by the US Pacific Command sending three missile destroyers (Sruance, Stethem, Momsen) to aggressively patrol around the Scarborough Shoal and the Spratly Island chain (some reefs and other above-water features of which have been expropriated by China). This destroyer flotilla is backed by the USS Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Group. The Chinese Navy has responded by conducting some sea drills in the vicinity.
But otherwise China has so far only huffed and it has puffed. The People’s Daily of July 6 questioned the locus standi of the US as an “outsider” interested in using this dispute “as a lever to realize its own strategic objectives” and warned that America’s “pressuring and intimidating ‘brinkmanship’ policy” will lead to an “outcome” it will have to “assume full responsibility for”. China’s intent to safeguard “its national sovereignty and territorial integrity” may be “unshakable” as the Daily put it. The question however is whether Beijing will risk endangering the G-20 Summit it will host in September. It will not.
But, the far-sighted Beijing had apparently already planned for such contingency and a political way out of it. It financed the campaign of Rodrigo Duterte in the general elections in May this year in the Philippines. Duterte is regarded by many as a maverick. The returns for China from this investment are coming in. Manila has already announced it is willing to sit down with Beijing, discuss the Hague judgement in its favour, and arrive at an amicable solution. It will save President Xi, who has engaged his ego in the South China Sea dispute, from actually delivering on China’s threats. Clever, clever, Chinese.