Editorial: Place from which to watch China

READERS of an American magazine, Travel + Leisure, have picked Palawan and Boracay as the two best islands of the world. Cebu didn’t do badly at all, landing sixth place in the well-travelled readers’ affections.

All these winning islands, the magazine said, possess a “transcendent beauty and ability to coax any traveler into a state of bliss.” Reading the article, one can be forgiven for wanting to travel, to find an island isolated from life’s daily demands, and to dive among reefs teeming with life.

As tempting as the prospect is, these are not the only islands we need to think about these days. The International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea ruled yesterday in favor of the Philippines on the case it launched three years ago against China.

The tribunal said that the islands China has been building in the South China Sea have no valid rights to the waters around them. We have watched helplessly in recent years while China built these islands on top of rocks and reefs, in order to claim territorial seas and exclusive economic rights. Apparently, a reef is something you can do more than observe and explore; it can anchor grander, more expansionist ambitions.

The tribunal did not rule on other thorny issues, such as the airstrips and other military facilities China has been building on the too-mildly-named Mischief Reef. It did declare parts of the disputed territory as neutral international waters.

But because China had rejected the Philippines’ action outright, a ruling favorable to the Philippines will bring limited relief. The UN arbitral tribunal has no mechanism to enforce its decision.

Responding to yesterday’s ruling, China’s foreign minister Wang Yi told The Guardian that he thought the proceedings were a farce, but that China is now willing to negotiate with the Philippines “over the South China Sea issue.”

Does this mean more of the same, then? Recall that when the Philippines brought its case to the tribunal three years ago, we had already waited for nearly two decades for a negotiated settlement that never came. So this favorable ruling will probably be a qualified success, at best.

These realities are tough, but inescapable—the consequence of being a small country with an underpowered military, whose few consolations include the support of some international allies. This, too: the China that agreed 40 years ago to help craft the UN Convention on the Laws of the Sea was a more pacific and less powerful China than it is now.

So now we wait for some reassurance on these islands, these “transcendentally beautiful” places from which to keep a wary eye on Chinese ambitions.


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