MANILA, Philippines – In one of the world's most disputed waters, the puny Philippine navy doesn't stand a chance against China's flotilla of combat ships. So when diplomacy went nowhere and Beijing's ships seized a disputed shoal and surrounded another reef, Filipino officials took a desperate step: They went to court.
That gambit plunged Manila's ties with China to a historic low but paid off in a monumental way Tuesday when an international arbitration tribunal declared China's sprawling territorial claims and assertive actions in the South China Sea were invalid under a 1982 U.N. treaty governing the world's oceans.
The unprecedented victory, likened by some to the Biblical duel between David and Goliath, provides China's smaller, poorer neighbors a viable way to confront the world's second-largest defense spender without resorting to arms and lopsided bilateral negotiations.
"The award further affirms our collective belief that right is might and that international law is the great equalizer among states," former Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario, who spearheaded the filing of the arbitration complaint against China in 2013, said, referring to the ruling.
Manila's legal triumph, however, brought it from one dilemma to the next — compelling China to comply.
The five-man tribunal under the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, Netherlands, has no power to enforce its rulings, and China defiantly refused to join the case or accept the verdict even though, like the Philippines, it had ratified the U.N. treaty that was a basis for the ruling.
The ruling has been hailed as a trailblazing effort to clarify the ambiguity and limits of China's territorial claims based on the treaty, the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea. But the difficulty of enforcing the ruling means the situation in the seas aren't likely to change in the foreseeable future nor will other governments emulate the Philippines's action against the Asian giant, according to analysts.
China is the largest trading partner of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, a conservative 10-nation bloc with four members engaged in territorial disputes with Beijing — the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei. The bloc decides by consensus, meaning just one member can stall joint efforts. At least two members, Cambodia and Laos, are aligned with China and have been known to have blocked stronger ASEAN statements on the territorial disputes.
Vietnam and the Philippines are among the most outspoken critics of China's actions in the disputed waters.
"We cannot expect, you know, a sudden upsurge of unity among claimant countries to sort of gang up on China," said Wilfrido Villacorta a Manila-based analyst who had served as ASEAN's deputy secretary-general. "That will never happen."
Except for Vietnam, which welcomed Tuesday's ruling against China, most ASEAN members issued relatively tame reactions.
Some called for "full respect for diplomatic and legal processes and relevant international law," including the U.N. treaty, but did not mention arbitration, which was considered too strong after China denounced the tribunal as lacking jurisdiction.
Malaysia, which has had tiffs with Chinese coast guards ships in disputed waters, said it "believes that it is important to maintain peace, security and stability through the exercise of self-restraint in the conduct of activities that may further complicate disputes or escalate tension and avoid the threat or use of force in the South China Sea."
It's also uncertain how new Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte would handle the major victory in his hands. His predecessor Benigno Aquino III intensified security relations with treaty ally the United States as a deterrence against China's territorial advances. The Aquino government has planned to campaign to muster international support, including in the U.N., to pressure China if the arbitration ruling had been delivered during his presidency.
Duterte, who took office June 30, has been visibly more friendly with Beijing and critical of the U.S.
During his campaign, Duterte told reporters he was open to joint exploration with China for energy resources in the disputed waters and that he would keep quiet on the issue if China finances railway projects in the Philippines. "Build me a train ... for the six years that I'll be president, I'll shut up," he said in April.
Duterte's foreign secretary, Perfecto Yasay Jr., reacted to the ruling by saying that government lawyers would study the 479-page decision before deciding what to do next. Duterte has said he would consider holding negotiations with Beijing after a ruling is handed down although he did not say if he would press for full Chinese compliance during the talks.
The Philippines and China, Yasay said, have agreed to avoid taking provocative actions that might scuttle chances of holding talks following the decision.
"China has a commitment that they will not take any provocative action against the Philippines or undermine our claims as will be defined under the decision of the arbitral tribunal," Yasay said. "We too will not do any provocative action."
Despite Tuesday's ruling, uncertainties continue to lurk in the disputed offshore region.
Long-displaced fishermen have been meeting in the northwestern Philippine to discuss plans of sailing back to Scarborough Shoal, the fishing ground China seized in 2012, prompting the Aquino government to file the arbitration case against Beijing the following year.
"They will really try so they would know where they have a right and if the (Chinese) would honor the law," Mayor Arsenia Lim of Masinloc town said.
"I'll ask the help of the coast guard to help our fishermen," she said. "The names of those sailing should be listed so we would know if they could return properly and if they're complete."
Associated Press writers Teresa Cerojano in Manila and Eileen Ng in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, contributed to this report..