In a surprise move this week, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte reversed course and called out China for violating international law. He criticized it for not honoring a ruling by a United Nations arbitration panel that invalidated China’s vast territorial claims in the South China Sea.
The 2016 ruling, said Mr. Duterte in a video speech during the U.N. General Assembly, stood for “the triumph of reason over rashness, of law over disorder, of amity over ambition.”
Other Southeast Asian nations have lately rebuked China for intruding on their territorial waters and violating the 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea. In mid-September, Indonesia protested the intrusion of a Chinese coast guard ship in its exclusive economic zone. In July, Malaysia asserted that China’s maritime claims hundreds of miles from its shores have no basis under international law. Vietnam, a frequent victim of Chinese maritime harassment, has even hinted at defense cooperation with its former foe, the United States.
These call-outs follow a U.S. decision in July to back the U.N. ruling. The Trump administration also imposed sanctions on 24 Chinese companies that helped Beijing build artificial islands in disputed waters since 2013.
All these actions come as China has aggressively pushed its territorial claims over Taiwan, the Himalayas, and Hong Kong. The pushback by Southeast Asians, notably the Philippines, reflects a collective effort to end a fear of Chinese threats and bullying and replace it with an affirmation of rules and law.
“This isn’t a region that’s going to be subject to a Chinese Monroe doctrine,” said Alexander Downer, a former foreign minister of Australia.
The U.N. ruling, Mr. Duterte said in his talk, is now part of international law and beyond the reach of any government “to dilute, diminish, or abandon.” That embrace of agreed principles in law may be the best defense against the use of brute force by China to extend its borders.