The arbitration case against China launched by the Philippines has attracted a lot of global media attention and global public opinion seems to support the Philippines’ case. However, a closer analysis reveals that the Philippines might in the end suffer from this arbitration case. How so? There are three main reasons for this.
First, there is no guarantee that the Philippines is going to win the arbitration case, even though media reports might suggest that it will. Actually, the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague is being very careful now as it tries to determine whether it has the necessary jurisdiction in the first place. This is not good news for the Philippines. Part of the reason is that the Court understands the huge implications of its decision for not only China, but also for the international law of the sea in general.
The reasons for this are not too difficult to understand. Basically, China has stated openly many times already that it will not participate in the arbitration case and thus will not implement any decision made by the tribunal. Of course, the final decision is unlikely to be entirely favorable to the Philippines. The more likely case is that China will win some concessions and the Philippines will win some as well. Either way, China will not accept the decision. Given this, ruling on the case would put the tribunal and international law in a very awkward position simply because the tribunal has no effective means to enforce the decision. That also means that the tribunal, and perhaps international law itself, will lose a lot of credibility before international society (the last thing the tribunal wants to see). So in this case, if the Philippines wins, it still loses and if it loses, it will lose big time.
Second, the arbitration case has seriously hurt China-Philippines bilateral relations in recent years. Given China’s continuing rise in Asia, it is important for other Asian states maintain a workable, if not friendly, relationship with China. To put it bluntly, their economic fate is tied to China’s own development. It is not clear how the current cold relationship between China and the Philippines will affect Chinese investment interest in the Philippines, but it is certain that many Chinese firms, especially state firms, will think twice before they purchase any serious stakes in the Filipino economy. Even if the Philippines can win a case against China, in the end it might not be worth it, considering the economic costs of such a win, not to mention the potential costs of a military conflict.
Third, a very important factor behind the Philippines’ arbitration case against China is the support of the United States. U.S. support might not be as strong as many in the Philippines seem to believe. Although the Philippines is a U.S. ally, this does not mean that the U.S. will offer military assistance if a ugly territorial conflict occurs between China and the Philippines. Even with U.S. assistance, it is doubtful that the Philippines could win a potential conflict against China. It is true that the Philippines, being a small nation, might win some moral international support in a conflict with China, but such support means little in the realm of international politics. Most importantly, China is unlikely to be deterred by unfavorable international opinion.
To conclude, it was indeed a mistake for the Philippines to file an arbitration case against China, no matter how necessary it felt given the circumstances. Indeed, so far, the Philippines has only gained some moral support from a few countries. It is important for the Philippines to think about the long term consequences of such a confrontational strategy against China—China is a permanent neighbor, after all, and countries cannot escape their neighbors. In the end, it is up to China and the Philippines to sit down and resolve their conflicts with some outside help. Alas, this arbitration case has clearly ruined any such hope in the near future.