This after the Philippines challenged China’s imaginary claim in 2013 over ninety percent of the strategic waterway in a tightly-watched case that raised tensions in Southeast Asia, after Manila exhausted more than 17 years of negotiations and diplomatic means over territories believed to be rich in oil and gas reserves.
Manila is not asking the tribunal to resolve sovereignty or delimit boundaries, but is seeking decisions on some key points, in particular, the 9-dash line which has no historical o legal basis under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
China, through its Coast Guard, has prevented and repeatedly harassed Filipino fishermen in exercising their “fishing and exploration rights”, while Chinese fishermen / poachers have irreversibly damaged coral reefs.
Tensions between China and its neighbours in the sea have at times flared into open conflict including in 1988 when Vietnam and China fought a naval battle on Johnson Reef in the Spratly Islands which killed about 70 Vietnamese.
Manila legal move drew the ire of Beijing, who until now, refuses to participate and threatened not to comply with the tribunal’s decision, but is duty bound to follow, although the tribunal has no “enforcement mechanism.”
Experts agree that the court may decide favouring the Philippines, after three years of deliberations, two hearings and nearly 4,000 pages of evidence, that would clearly reject some of China’s theoretical claim and it would provide support to the views of other states in the region.
The United States of America was also alarmed by this regional tension since it has key defence treaties with many regional allies and has urged parties to comply with the ruling and urge all claimants to avoid further provocations in any form.
America had sent warships and surveillance planes to the region to closely patrol the contested areas to ensure “freedom of navigation and overflight” which was threatened by China’s illegal reclamation of former reefs and shoals that they converted into man-made islands-turned military installations and may affect the worlds shipping lanes passing through to-and-fro Europe and the Middle East with $5 trillion (4.5 trillion euros) in ship-borne trade.
China, through its President Xi Jinping, has been frantically conducting public relations blitz in an effort to throw off the effect of the decision by saying they are “not afraid of trouble” and are preparing for “military confrontation” within the contested territories.
They have decided “not to step back” on the issue and have even launched military drills since last week and has reportedly sent out more ships and planes into the region.
If the Philippines is able to “pierce” the nine-dash line through the tribunals decision, its “position and credibility” will be weakened.
Despite all of these, new Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is optimistic that the country will receive a favourable ruling, but is willing to hold bilateral talks with Beijing, even sharing natural resources in the West Philippine Sea. AES / MCAG