The Philippines yesterday launched unprecedented legal action to challenge at the UN China's claim to virtually the entire South China Sea - a move made over Beijing's objections.
Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario summoned Chinese ambassador Ma Keqing to receive a formal note confirming Manila would challenge the validity of China's nine-dash line - which delineates its territorial claims - and other actions, including island occupations, via an arbitration tribunal under the UN's Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
"The Philippines has exhausted almost all political and diplomatic avenues for a peaceful negotiated settlement of its maritime disputes with China," del Rosario said. "To this day a solution is still elusive. We hope that the arbitral proceedings shall bring this dispute to a durable solution."
A spokesman for China's embassy in Manila insisted that Beijing had "indisputable sovereignty over the islands in the South China Sea".
With a decision potentially years away - and uncertainty over whether the UN tribunal will agree to hear the case - Philippine officials are bracing for a tough response from China, including possible economic measures. Mainland scholars warned that the legal challenge would definitely harm bilateral ties.
"I think Manila is determined to sacrifice its ties with Beijing in order to defend their interests in the South China Sea," said Zhang Mingliang , of Jinan University.
"Manila always stresses that China is a bully, and it is a small and weak country, to win sympathy internationally ... I think China should seize the opportunity to prove that UNCLOS is not a fair law because it ignored China's nine-dash line, which was drawn in the late 1940s," he said. UNCLOS was established in 1982 and signed by China in 1994.
Jiang Xiding , an expert on Southeast Asian affairs at Xiamen University, said he feared other claimants would follow the Philippines' lead.
Singapore-based scholar Ian Storey said Manila's move might provide China with justification to further delay meaningful talks with the 10 nations of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations over the creation of a Code of Conduct to ease tensions in the South China Sea.