It’s been three weeks now since the start of the standoff with China at Scarborough Shoal, a group of mostly submerged rocks in the West Philippine Sea that the Philippines and China are claiming as part of their respective territories. While a diplomatic way out of the impasse is being sought, a complex signaling exercise involving the deployment and withdrawal of maritime vessels is also going on. What further complicates matters is that the standoff began just a few days before the start of the US-Philippine joint military exercises. The Philippines insists the two events are unrelated, but that is not how the situation looks from a geopolitical perspective.

That perspective would say we are not really the major protagonist here, the United States is. The United States has made it clear it will secure existing navigational lanes in the South China Sea. But whether it will go to war to protect Philippine territorial claims in the area is another question. Definitely, the problem at Scarborough cannot be treated in isolation from the broader question of how Southeast Asia – and, for that matter, the rest of the world – must deal with China. In this regard, the silence of our Asean neighbors is deafening, though hardly surprising. So intertwined are their economies with China that none of them would wish to be perceived as joining a bandwagon against this rising power.

All this prompts the key question: Can the world trust China to abide by international rules? The dramatic opening of its economy to global trade and investment in the last three decades may suggest that China is ready to take its place as an equal in the community of nations. But it would be naïve to think this is so. In a recent paper, Filipino scholar Eduardo Araral, who is based at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore, offers a more nuanced picture:

“On matters of core interest such as sovereignty in the South China Sea, Taiwan and Tibet, China has weak incentives to play by international rules and bind itself. Instead, bilateralism will be China’s dominant strategy. Divide and conquer will be China’s dominant strategy in dealing with its Southeast Asian neighbors and China has been playing this card on the issue of the South China Sea.

“For example, China does not want to submit to international arbitration on the matter of the South China Sea or submit itself to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos). China’s position has been, and will likely to be the case, to insist on a bilateral negotiation with claimant countries such as the Philippines and Vietnam, because this is a strategy that favors China. The Philippine position on the other hand is to bring the case under the framework of international law, specifically the Unclos, which would protect its claims within the 200-mile exclusive economic zone. It is unlikely that China will abandon this position.

“To the extent that China considers the South China Sea as a core interest, submitting itself to international arbitration and facing the risk of losing face—domestically and internationally—carries a substantial political risk. Besides, China’s political leaders are already busy with domestic problems and they are probably not keen to add one more on an already overflowing plate. Therefore, for a politically emotional and sensitive issue such as sovereignty, it is not in China’s interest to commit itself to a multilateral solution.”

Reacting to an earlier column I wrote on “The realpolitik of size,” Araral argues that “geopolitics and great power politics should be central to the Philippine government’s future strategy with China.” He is convinced that the giant next door is capable of playing a mix of many games aimed at preventing conflicts from spiraling while allowing it to focus on solving domestic problems and building its defense capability.

At the same time, China’s leaders cannot ignore the growing ranks of ultra-nationalist elements within their society that demand greater assertiveness in defending Chinese sovereignty. Among them are precisely the forces that fervently believe that the entire South China Sea and all it contains historically belong to China. The government indeed finds itself “pandering” to them from time to time, but Araral is convinced that in the long term China’s leadership has better sense than to depart from the proven path of “sobriety and dialogue.”

China is showing its people that their government will stand up to America or any of its proxies if they threaten its sovereignty. Its pronouncements, however, draw a careful distinction between international navigational rights, which they respect, and other countries’ claims to “their” territory, which they resolutely reject.

From where we stand, the Chinese claim to Scarborough Shoal seems preposterous since these waters lie very close to our western coast and are well within our 200-mile exclusive economic zone. International law—particularly the Unclos—is clearly on our side. But China insists that the shoal is historically part of Chinese terrain, not to be conquered but to be “unified” into the mainland. As Martin Jacques notes (“When China Rules the World”): “Territory, once taken, has been regarded as immutably Chinese.”

Bringing the issue to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea or the International Court of Justice is clearly the most logical way to press our claim to these reefs, but that is only the legal issue. We must take care not to foreclose the many other fronts in which we can engage China, that offer mutual benefits and opportunities to both countries.

– Randy David