Philippines challenges China’s mischief on the seas

Like the protesters in Hong Kong, the Philippines demands that Beijing obey the law in the South China Sea.

AP/U.S. Navy
Chinese dredging vessels reshape Mischief Reef in the South China Sea in 2017 to allow for a naval and air base.

This weekend, protesters will be out again on Hong Kong’s streets, challenging China’s concept of rule of law. Last year, Chinese leader Xi Jinping made clear that rule of law merely means “the law of governing by the Communist Party.” Yet the protesters are not alone on the world scene. On Thursday, the Philippines president, Rodrigo Duterte, went to Beijing to deliver a similar message directly to Mr. Xi. The gist of the message: China must accept the international norm that rule of law is a value for all, not an arbitrary tool of the powerful.

In recent years, the Philippines has borne the brunt of Mr. Xi’s campaign to dominate much of the South China Sea, even many submerged rocks hundreds of miles from China’s shores. In 2016, most of Beijing’s “historical” claims were rejected by an international arbitration panel in a case brought by the Philippines under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

China does not accept the ruling. In other words, it remains an outlaw under international law. And lately, Chinese vessels have stepped up maritime harassment near the Philippines as well as in the waters of two other Southeast Asian countries, Vietnam and Malaysia.

In June, a Chinese trawler hit and sank a Philippine boat, leaving 22 fishermen stranded. As a result, public outrage exploded in the Philippines against China’s illegal encroachment on the country’s watery turf. A month earlier, the Philippine Supreme Court had ordered the government to protect the country’s maritime environment against illegal Chinese activity. The Philippine military has been especially upset that China has built a military base on Mischief Reef, a low-tide feature on the continental shelf of the Philippines.

“China’s artificial island building program at Mischief Reef is the single greatest obstacle to an orderly settlement of disputes in the South China Sea,” write two scholars at Ontario’s University of Waterloo, David Welch and Kobi Logendrarajah.

Until these recent events, Mr. Duterte had mostly befriended China and accepted promises of financial aid. Now under pressure to stand up for global rules about ownership and use of offshore waters, he is finally protesting China’s affront to international law. His voice now joins the chorus of the Hong Kong protesters who see rule of law as universal, not capricious under a party or person.

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