IV Regional Perspectives

Philippines' Approaches to the South China Sea Disputes: International Arbitration and the Challenges of a Rule-Based Regime

Angelo A. Jimenez

The Philippine decision to place its South China Sea maritime dispute with China under the compulsory arbitrations process of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, has, arguably enhanced the complexity of the two-decade-long multi-party dispute. It highlights the challenges of developing a "rules-based regime" by introducing binding international legal process to the already convoluted and multi-layered issue. Less than a month after receiving the Philippines' Notice to Arbitrate along with its Statement of Claims at the Chinese Embassy in Manila on 21 January 2013, Beijing informed Manila that it was rejecting arbitration and urged instead a return to bilateral consultations and negotiations (GMA News, 2013). Manila's decision was driven by fears of its inability to effectively counter Beijing's increasing assertiveness in pursuing its claims. Seeking to gain international support while reducing its impact on overall Philippine- China relations, Manila insists that arbitration is "the most peaceful, durable and lasting solution" to their maritime disputes. However, far from easing tensions, it is raising even more complex legal, political, and security issues, and untangling them is critical to the management of the disputes and the maintenance of stability in the region.

This chapter seeks to contribute to an understanding of the Philippine perspectives on the South China Sea disputes. It also argues that the South China Sea dispute cannot be solely resolved under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Even where it helps in clarifying the nine-dash line and the status of reefs and rocks, any decision will largely be political in its impact, subject to further bilateral negotiations. This is mainly due to China's refusal to participate and the lack of an effective enforcement mechanism under the UN system.

It starts with an outline of the Philippines legal framework, particularly showing its efforts to align its maritime claims with UNCLOS. It then explains the development of its political efforts within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) framework, centred on the development of a binding code of conduct, and its diplomatic and bilateral consultations and negotiations with Beijing for decades. It argues that the failure of both tracks to prevent China's "creeping" occupation and aggressive exercise of its jurisdiction in the disputed areas has led to the arbitration case. The paper also adds a section on how the 2012 Scarborough Shoal incident resulted in greater domestic political support for increased defence spending by the Philippines leading to enhanced security cooperation with the United States thus, sharpening US-China rivalry and adding to regional insecurity. The chapter concludes by stating that peace and stability in the region now depends on ASEAN leadership in establishing a binding Code of Conduct.

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