To Manila, standing up to Beijing is a victory

MANILA - The Philippines has done what most other countries consider fatal: poke a bear.

On Sunday, Manila sued Beijing before a United Nations tribunal for claiming territories in the South China Sea that supposedly do not belong to it.

It seems like a fool's errand.

Beijing has already said it will not yield these territories, even if Manila wins its case. It believes no one can compel it to do so. For the Philippines, however, merely standing up to China is a victory in itself.

On Monday, Philippine President Benigno Aquino said: "This is the right way to go. China has to realise we have the right to defend our own interests."

The Philippines expects a favourable ruling to rally the world behind it as it pressures China to back off. "There's a price to be paid for branding yourself as an international outlaw, as a state that doesn't respect, that doesn't comply with international law," said Manila's lead counsel Paul Reichler. He has successfully sued countries like the US, Russia and Britain on behalf of Nicaragua, Georgia and Mauritius.

The problem with this line of thinking is that China equally believes the law is on its side.

It has another bargaining chip: Most of the other ASEAN members, even those that are also contesting China's claims, want no part in the course of action the Philippines has taken.

China believes the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which the Philippines is invoking, does not cover land disputes. The law cannot be used to determine who owns an island, shoal or reef in the South China Sea, it maintains.

The Philippines, on the other hand, insists the case is not about land but about water.

In a 4,000-page plea filed with the UN tribunal on Sunday, the Philippines is arguing that China's nine-dash line, which covers 90 per cent of the 3.5 million sq km South China Sea, spreads deep into its maritime "exclusive economic zone".

What has apparently emboldened the Philippines to infuriate a powerful neighbour not only by taking it to court but also by engaging its Coast Guard in skirmishes at sea is the full backing of the United States.

Just hours after Manila filed its plea, Washington issued a statement saying it "reaffirms its support for the exercise of peaceful means to resolve maritime disputes without fear of any form of retaliation, including intimidation or coercion".

That kind of support has ruffled feathers in China.

The state-run Global Times said in an editorial: "The Philippines could do nothing but provoke China like a clown under the indulgence of some Western forces, but its acts have produced no geopolitical significance."

And even with Washington's backing, Manila is in for a long, lonely legal battle with Beijing. For now, it is taking comfort in small victories.

Last Saturday, two boats sent by the Philippine Navy managed to sneak past four Chinese Coast Guard vessels to resupply a group of marines on a ship Manila ran aground in 1999 to stake its claim to a disputed rocky outcrop in the South China Sea.

That feat has been widely reported in the Philippines, and the reaction has been both jubilant and wary.

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