Can a Lawsuit Stop Chinese Aggression?

A tribunal in The Hague aims to help settle a potentially dangerous territorial dispute.

A fisherman watches sunset in the South China Sea in the northern Philippines. (Erik De Castro / Reuters)

Earlier this month, a petition emerged at with an unusual request for Google: arbitrate a naming dispute between the Philippines and China. Until recently, Google Maps had labeled a small shoal claimed by both countries as Zhongsha, the Chinese name, rather than Panatag, the moniker preferred by Filipinos. On Tuesday, Google rechristened the reef with its English name: Scarborough Shoal.

The dispute over what to call the Scarborough Shoal isn’t just a minor squabble. It echoes a lawsuit playing out on a much larger scale. Last week, an Arbitral Tribunal gathered in The Hague to determine whether China’s vast maritime claims in the South China Sea, where the shoal is located, violate international law. The case, first filed by the Philippine government in 2013, will have implications beyond questions of sovereignty in Asia. The tribunal’s decision will bear on a larger question: Can an international institution stop a rising power from doing what it wants?

The Chinese government defines its maritime claims as all the water encompassed by a “nine-dash line” that encircles Taiwan and hugs the coastlines of the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and Vietnam. The line—which China claims dates back to the 1940s—is not recognized by any other state or international institution, and for decades the Chinese government did little to enforce it. But as China has grown stronger, the country has begun to enforce its sovereign claims, constructing artificial islands near the disputed Spratly Islands and establishing an oil rig off Vietnamese shores. These moves have given the country de facto control over sea lanes crucial to international trade, access to abundant fish stock, and possession of water potentially rich in natural resources.

China’s incursions have drawn resistance from neighboring countries. In 1999, the Philippines stationed a rusted naval ship, the BRP Sierra Madre, along a submerged shoal disputed by Manila and Beijing, and since then the Philippines has garrisoned a small number of troops there. But no country in the region possesses the military strength to deter Chinese activity there, and Beijing has been able to carry out its maritime policy with impunity.

Lacking a military alternative, the Philippines have turned to international law. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), ratified by Manila in 1984 and Beijing in 2006, grants each maritime country an exclusive economic zone within 200 miles of its shoreline—a designation that China has largely ignored in recent years. Rather than simply ask the tribunal in The Hague to settle a bilateral territorial dispute, the Philippines is instead seeking to render China’s “nine-dash line” null and void. Will the gambit work?

Probably not. China has dismissed the legitimacy of the tribunal entirely, instead preferring to negotiate with the Philippines directly. And even if the judges in The Hague rule in the Philippines’ favor, which is no sure thing, the tribunal lacks any enforcement mechanism to compel China to comply with its decision. The Chinese government, in any case, has said that it will continue to do what it wants regardless of the decision.

Which is not to say that the case won’t have consequences. If the Philippines loses, the country and its neighbors will be less likely to turn to international institutions to resolve future disputes, and military alliances will become more attractive. Heightened tension in the South China Sea will increase the chances that the region’s other superpower—the United States—intervenes more forcefully on behalf of China’s adversaries. Finally, the tribunal’s decision will determine whether UNCLOS, a crucial piece of international legislation, has lost its reason for being—and show that the law of the sea may more closely resemble the law of the jungle.