The Philippines Takes China to Court, but It's Public Opinion That Will Decide

Just as a Philippines ship eluded Chinese gunboats by sailing into safe waters in order to feed Filipino troops, the Philippines government, the brave David of Asia, has outmaneuvered Goliath China by going to two courts to get its seized lands and seas returned.

The first is a world court in The Hague in the Netherlands where a five-judge tribunal will determine if China has violated international law by its continuing efforts to take over the South China Sea.

The second court is the Court of World Opinion, and the Philippines are counting on a groundswell of support if China is found guilty in The Hague and refuses to obey the court's orders.

China is refusing to take part at The Hague, but it has already shown signs of fear of public opinion branding it as a rogue nation. The first sign came when China appeared to blink and made last-minute offers if the Philippines wouldn't file its case. The offers were believed to include withdrawal from contested islands and reefs and a huge trade-and-aid package to the Philippines, described as leading to a new golden age of cooperation between the two countries.

Now China denies any such offer -- "sheer fabrication" -- because no formal offer was made, only back-channel efforts that were rejected by the Philippines. China has resumed its litany of bluster and threats, warning the Philippines of untold consequences. The next sign came when China displayed anger that the Philippines told the world how its supply ship successfully evaded Chinese naval forces by entering shallow waters at Second Thomas Shoal to feed and rotate troops stationed there. Journalists were aboard, and the story immediately received worldwide acclaim.

The case at The Hague will be lengthy and involved. Lawyers for the Philippines have filed an initial request, called a memorial, that extends to 4,000 pages. A decision on whether China has violated the United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea, which it signed , isn't expected until 2015. Five judges will decide -- a chief judge from Ghana, and judges from France, Poland, the Netherlands and Germany.

But evidence is already being presented to the Court of World Opinion, and China doesn't like what it sees. The case in The Hague marks the first time China has ever been challenged legally about its intrusions into the South China Sea, where it claims almost all the islands, reefs and sea lanes as its own. Moreover, if the international court decides in favor of the Philippines, the decision could have a marked effect on similar disputes with Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei.

China insists its differences with the Philippines and the other countries should be discussed bilaterally with each of the smaller nations. It doesn't want ASEAN, the 10-member Association of South-East Asia Nations, directly involved, and certainly not the United Nations, even though China agreed to ASEAN's declaration in 2002 committing to international law, including the United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea. Twelve years later, however, little progress has been made to turn that declaration into a code of conduct for the South China Sea, and that appears to suit China just fine. An effective code would prohibit military exercises in disputed waters, which China undertakes regularly and would be loathe to cease.

World opinion is supportive of the Philippines' decision to go to the international tribunal, a peaceful act taken only after years of Chinese forceful occupation of Philippine territory. The United States has issued statements that the Philippines legal course is right and proper.

What is unknown is China's ultimate reaction. It has already threatened the Philippines with retaliation, yet to be defined. In an earlier dispute, China stopped Philippine imports of bananas, leaving the fruit to rot on Chinese docks. The next round is expected to be more serious than the "banana war," particularly if China considers military action to dislodge the Philippines from Second Thomas Shoal, site of the successful Philippines evasion of the Chinese gunboats.

What is also unknown is how the United States and other countries will respond if China takes actions that exacerbate the situation.

The stalwart president of the Philippines, Benigno Aquino, standing up to an aggressive China, has noted that other countries say they are standing behind him. He would feel more assured if those countries, including the United States, stand beside him, not behind.