When the leaders of the member-states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) gather this weekend in Kuala Lumpur, their agenda will be dominated by the launch of the 10-year roadmap toward the realization of the Asean Community. But, apart from regional economic integration, President Aquino has other things in mind. The Asean summit offers him another opportunity to bring up the issue of China’s aggressive moves in the South China Sea. Hopefully, he will get his colleagues to conclude the protracted discussion of a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea as a concrete achievement in political and security cooperation.

This was an issue he first sharply brought to the Asean table at the 20th Asean summit in 2012 in Phnom Penh. For the first time in its history, the consensus-oriented regional bloc failed to issue a joint communiqué at the end of its meeting after the host country decided to take up the cudgels for China. This was a moment when semantics could not come to the aid of diplomacy.

That Cambodian summit conveyed in no uncertain terms P-Noy’s determination to hold China accountable for its actions under international norms. His dogged pursuit of the South China Sea issue at that meeting, which he did in the politest terms possible, deviated from the customary practice of issuing muffled official protests while signaling a readiness to settle disputes through bilateral talks. It was a sharp departure from the policy that had characterized his predecessor’s cozy relationship with China. Not too long after the Cambodian encounter, the Philippines filed an arbitration case against China under the terms of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos).

Treating it as a provocation, China refused to participate in the arbitral proceedings in The Hague. While China is within its rights not to submit to the authority of the international tribunal, it is difficult to see how it can stake a unilateral claim on virtually the whole of the South China Sea, and expect this claim to be recognized by other nations merely on the basis of what it regards as historical rights. But that is the reason for China’s preference for arguments based on maps and archaeological artifacts (whose authenticity has been repeatedly questioned). Preposterous as it may seem, this line of reasoning is consistent with the doctrine advanced by China’s legal experts that “a judicial fact must be appreciated in the light of the laws contemporary with it, rather than the laws in force at the time when a dispute arises.” (Cited in Martin Jacques’ “When China Rules the World”)

China’s recent actions have gone beyond the deployment of patrol boats in a vast sea it claims as its territorial waters. It has embarked in the last few months in a frenetic reclamation and construction program aimed at converting partly submerged reefs and shoals into islands of concrete, equipped with aircraft landing strips and naval ports. This crude operation has entailed digging out large amounts of sand from the seabed and piling it upon live corals in order to create a solid foundation. A marine scientist believes that hundreds of hectares have so far been reclaimed in this ecologically disastrous manner. This activity has alarmed the developed world, seeing in it a brazen attempt to create choke points along what is regarded as one of the busiest sea lanes in the world.

Satellite photos show reclamation and construction work proceeding nonstop on at least seven reefs, all of which are the object of competing claims by other countries. China has characteristically brushed aside all criticism, saying that it is within its rights to do anything on its territory.

Twenty years ago, it would have been inconceivable for China to behave like this. A region that was just starting to emerge from anticommunist paranoia would have regarded these moves with extreme suspicion and disdain. Today, economic clout has made it possible for China to exercise the kind of power and influence it failed to achieve by its support of revolutions in Southeast Asia. It has long replaced Japan as the economic engine that would propel the rest of the region to the level attained by the Asian “tiger economies” of the 1970s and 1980s. There is not a single economy in the Asean bloc that is not in some measure dependent on China for trade, investment and tourism.

Without any doubt, the United States continues to be the single most dominant power in the region that has the capability to repel China. It is expected to issue warnings against any attempt to alter the geopolitical configuration of the region. But so long as its own ailing economy is equally tied to China’s economic power, it is hardly in a position to take punitive action against any Chinese aggression in the region. What this means is that, for all the moral support it is getting from the international community, the Philippines basically stands alone in its fight to make China answerable under international law.

Pragmatic Asean, whose economic fortunes are closely intertwined with that of China, will not turn its back on its most important partner just to make the Philippines feel good. What Malaysia’s Defense Minister Hishamuddin Hussein told his Asean colleagues in August 2013 will not change even if Malaysia is hosting the 2015 summit: “Just because you have enemies doesn’t mean your enemies are my enemies.”

This kind of pragmatism plays right into China’s hands. Unable to buy every nation in its backyard, it will wait until a new set of pliant leaders is elected.

— Randy David