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South China Sea ruling hailed as equalising

Published:Thursday | July 14, 2016 | 7:03 AM

South China Sea ruling hailed as equalising

MANILA, Philippines (AP)

In one of the world's most disputed waters, the puny Philippine navy doesn't stand a chance against China's flotilla of combat ships. So when diplomacy went nowhere and Beijing's ships seized a disputed shoal and surrounded another reef, Filipino officials took a desperate step: They went to court.

That gambit plunged Manila's ties with China to a historic low but paid off in a monumental way Tuesday when an international arbitration tribunal declared China's sprawling territorial claims and assertive actions in the South China Sea were invalid under a 1982 UN treaty governing the world's oceans.

The unprecedented victory, likened by some to the Biblical duel between David and Goliath, provides China's smaller, poorer neighbours a viable way to confront the world's second-largest defence spender without resorting to arms and lopsided bilateral negotiations.

"The award further affirms our collective belief that right is might and that international law is the great equaliser among states," former Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario, who spearheaded the filing of the arbitration complaint against China in 2013, said, referring to the ruling.

Manila's legal triumph, however, brought it from one dilemma to the next compelling China to comply.

The five-man tribunal under the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, Netherlands, has no power to enforce its rulings, and China defiantly refused to join the case or accept the verdict even though, like the Philippines, it had ratified the UN treaty that was a basis for the ruling.

The ruling has been hailed as a trailblazing effort to clarify the ambiguity and limits of China's territorial claims based on the treaty, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. But the difficulty of enforcing the ruling means the situation in the seas aren't likely to change in the foreseeable future nor will other governments emulate the Philippines's action against the Asian giant, according to analysts.

China is the largest trading partner of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, a conservative 10-nation bloc with four members engaged in territorial disputes with Beijing the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei. The bloc decides by consensus, meaning just one member can stall joint efforts.

At least two members, Cambodia and Laos, are aligned with China and have been known to have blocked stronger ASEAN statements on the territorial disputes.

It's also uncertain how new Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte would handle the major victory in his hands. His predecessor Benigno Aquino III intensified security relations with treaty ally the United States as a deterrence against China's territorial advances. The Aquino government has planned to campaign to muster international support, including in the UN, to pressure China if the arbitration ruling had been delivered during his presidency.

Duterte, who took office June 30, has been visibly more friendly with Beijing and critical of the US.

During his campaign, Duterte told reporters he was open to joint exploration with China for energy resources in the disputed waters and that he would keep quiet on the issue if China finances railway projects in the Philippines. "Build me a train ... for the six years that I'll be president, I'll shut up," he said in April.

"China has a commitment that they will not take any provocative action against the Philippines or undermine our claims as will be defined under the decision of the arbitral tribunal," Yasay said. "We too will not do any provocative action."