An echo of Ukraine’s war in Asia

A new president in the Philippines reaffirms how rule of international law can help countries stand up to bullying neighbors like China or Russia.

A 2017 photo by the Philippines Air Force shows structures built by China on a built-up reef in the Spratly chain of islands in the South China Sea.

Ukraine’s fight to restore its territorial sovereignty has an unusual supporter half a world away –from an Asian country whose own struggles for national integrity help reveal a grander global goal in Ukraine.

For the Philippines, Russia’s violation of international law was a reminder of China’s forceful taking of strategic reefs in Philippine waters a decade ago. Unable to take back the islets, the Philippines instead took the high moral ground. In 2016, it won an international court ruling against Beijing’s violation of the Law of the Sea treaty.

On July 12, for the sixth anniversary of the verdict by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague – a verdict China rejected – a new government in Manila reminded the world of what is at stake in upholding a rules-based world order.

The ruling, said Foreign Affairs Secretary Enrique Manalo, remains “an inspiration for how matters should be considered – through reason and right – by states facing similarly challenging circumstances.” The court put an aspect of international law “beyond the reach of arms to change,” said the country’s top diplomat. He also welcomed “the support of a growing list of countries” for the ruling.

The newly installed Philippine president, Ferdinand Marcos Jr., appears ready to take a stronger stance against China than his predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte. “We will not allow a single square ... millimeter” of the Philippines’ 200-kilometer economic zone in the South China Sea “to be trampled upon,” said Mr. Marcos.

The new president, the son a former dictator, also has domestic opinion behind him. A poll in June shows nearly 90% of Filipinos insist on the country’s rights to its offshore waters. And the Biden administration used the anniversary to reaffirm that an armed attack on the Philippines in the South China Sea would trigger a U.S. military response under a 1951 mutual defense treaty.

The Philippines is not alone in dealing with China’s aggression. The Chinese military has intruded on either the islands or airspace of countries from Japan to Taiwan to Indonesia. “Nowhere is the rules-based maritime order under greater threat than in the South China Sea,” said U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken last year.

Asia may well be where the shape of the international order will be decided, perhaps more than in Europe with the Ukraine war. Both Russia and China have imperial aspirations with little regard for the stability that honoring national borders brings. Yet China’s economic and military strengths make it a greater threat. Countries like the Philippines are trying to set a standard for the power of law over the power of guns.

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