Drawing the Line: The Dispute Between China and the Philippines Over Territoriality

Photo of Carlos A. Maycotte

Lost in the hype surrounding the Senkako-Diayou dispute between China and Japan over territoriality is another similar conflict that also involves China. For the last few years, China and the Philippines have been contesting a 2,000 mile stretch of sea that not only includes enormous deposits of oil and gas, but also serves as one of the world’s primary shipping lanes.

The dispute centers over a series of islands and the waterways in between those islands in what is called the West Philippines Sea by the Philippines and the South China Sea by China. China and the Philippines have each staked out claims to the area, mobilizing their troops across an invisible line in an increasingly precarious stalemate. The Philippines, as reported in an excellent New York Times Magazine story last October, intentionally ran an enormous, rusting, inoperable WWII-era ship into a reef in Ayungin Shoal, staffing it with Marines who are tasked with a continuous presence in the area. In response, China has sent scores of fishing boats to the edge of the imaginary line, and has now supplemented them with its only functioning aircraft carrier. This has created an increasingly fraught situation, and diplomacy seems to be failing.

The Philippines has commenced an arbitration at the United Nations International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, seeking an arbitral resolution to the dispute now that, as it claims, all diplomatic efforts have been exhausted. In turn, China has refused to participate in the arbitration, taking the implicit stance that it will not recognize the authority of the UN to resolve the dispute. The arbitral tribunal is still empowered to rule on the matter and will likely issue a decision. The question is whether the tribunal will rule on the merits or whether it will default China. The follow-up (and more important) question is, in either case, will it even matter?


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