China has long dominated the sport of ping-pong. A rapid-fire game of table tennis using a hollow ball and small paddles. It might even be said that actions China has taken recently due to maritime tensions with her neighbours over overlapping territorial claims can be likened to a ping-pong match… and China has, for the most, part dominated in this arena too. There have been many small, quick, moves passing the onus of a response from one player to another resulting in hollow victories.
In the East China Sea, China has been battling Japan and Taiwan over a small group of islands. In the South China Sea, it has been tussling over territory with the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and again, Taiwan. It’s been that way for decades. Each claimant saying they have historical and geographical rights over resource-rich waters and trade routes. For years, no one pushed much for a resolution. Maybe because there had been no need to. But now, with the balance of power shifting across the globe, and resources in general in declining supply, all the claimants are eager to get their share of the proverbial pie, and China is eager to make her mark and establish herself the player supreme.
There have been altercations in the disputed waters with the smaller claimants accusing China of intimidation. Economically, all the countries are engaged with each other and interdependent, but alongside that, there have been maritime stand-offs, trade repercussions, passionate protests on the streets, and an exchange of angry diplomatic rhetoric. And still, through all that, no concrete moves had really been taken to find a lasting, peaceful resolution.
Feeling that it has exhausted “almost all” political and diplomatic avenues, the Philippines has taken the rather bold move of challenging China legally – in an international arena -- over the validity of its nine-dash line claim, which includes waters within 200 nautical miles off the Philippine shoreline. This isn't to do with sovereignty - or who owns what - but about who has the right to benefit from certain areas.
The Philippines maintains that under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) – to which both countries are signatories – only the Philippines has rights to explore and exploit the resources within the disputed area as it is part of its continental shelf there are no inhabitable islands over which sovereignty can be claimed, and falls inside an UNCLOS-defined Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).
But China disagrees, and says it is the Philippines that is trespassing. Chinese vessels are now patrolling those waters – which has made it difficult for Filipino fishermen to go about their business. More than that, the Chinese presence has also caused delays in Philippine-planned oil exploration projects in the area. It is believed to be sitting on $35 trillion dollars-worth of natural gas and oil deposits.
Albert del Rosario, the Philippine Foreign Secretary, says China must “desist from unlawful activities that violate the sovereign rights and jurisdiction of the Philippines under the 1982 UNCLOS”. And he hopes the arbitral tribunal agrees with him.
China never wanted international mediation, always pushing for bilateral negotiations instead. But attempts at such talks haven’t amounted to much over the years. Unsurprisingly, China is unhappy with the Philippines’ legal challenge, accusing the small, archipelagic nation of now “complicating” the issue by involving an arbitral tribunal.
So what next? It’s China’s move. The Philippines has nominated an arbiter from an existing UNCLOS list to sit on a 5-person panel, now China has to do the same. Then, both countries have to agree on 3 other arbiters. Should China not engage in the process, a decision can be made solely on the argument the Philippines presents. And the outcome will be legally binding.
The thing is – the tribunal does not have power to enforce its decision, whatever it may be. Which leads to some of the questions already being asked: if the Philippine claim is sustained, how will it make sure China abides by the decision? Will Philippine allies like the US and Japan, (both of which it is strengthening military alliances with), help protect its interests? Each of those countries, after all, has its own issues with China.
Regardless, the ball that has now been struck over the net is no longer a hollow one. The Philippines knows it is, in a way, forcing China’s hand... and it hopes it is ready for the play that is lobbed back.