BEIJING – An international tribunal made a landmark ruling Tuesday rejecting China's vast territorial claims in the South China Sea, handing the Philippines a victory and dealing a blow to Beijing. But it remains unclear what, if any, impact the ruling will have, given that the tribunal doesn't have any way to enforce it.
The next steps China, the Philippines and the United States might be considering:
CHINA: MAINTAIN HARD LINE, PUSH FOR TALKS
China has spared no effort in dismissing the arbitration decision as null and void, and denouncing the proceedings and even the five-member panel that made the ruling. The government on Wednesday released a policy paper on its dispute with the Philippines over the South China Sea, in which Beijing reiterated its position that the sea's islands are "China's inherent territory."
Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin also warned other nations not to challenge China's security interests in the South China Sea, saying Beijing had the right to establish an air defense identification zone over the disputed waters if necessary.
At the same time, Beijing appears for now to be trying a softer approach in appealing to the Philippines to return to the negotiating table, saying there would be "tangible benefits" for the Philippines to cooperate with China.
To persuade Manila to return to talks, China could offer to share fishing and oil and gas resources with the Philippines and finance railway projects in the Southeast Asian nation, analysts say.
Because the Hague-based tribunal can't enforce its decision, the ruling's impact on China might mostly be in the damage it causes to Beijing's image as it seeks a stronger voice on the global stage and legitimacy as a global power. Analysts at the Center for Strategic and International Studies say the ruling could help convince Beijing to treat Manila and other claimants fairly in the medium-to-long term.
Some analysts speculate that China could try to escalate the dispute to punish Manila for pursuing the case and deter other claimants from doing the same. Beijing could take more assertive measures such as island building on Scarborough Shoal, a reef off the Philippine coast where a standoff with China prompted the Philippines to initiate the legal case in 2013.
THE PHILIPPINES: WALK THE TIGHTROPE
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has not directly responded to China's overtures since the ruling was issued, though his spokesmen have said the government is studying the tribunal's decision. China has been on a charm offensive and Duterte is navigating a tightrope in which he wants to revive relations with Beijing while being seen as defending the major victory the country won through arbitration.
Philippine Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay said that over the next few days, the government will take steps to ensure that the tribunal's ruling is "peacefully implemented."
"We are open to making sure that we will have bilateral talks with China in the implementation of this decision of the arbitral tribunal," he told Manila radio DZBB. He said that "the next step is to move forward and let diplomacy reign."
Yasay said both China and the Philippines have committed not to take provocative action.
China expert Chito Sta. Romana told ABS-CBN network that the challenge for Duterte now is how to combine engagement and deterrence. "It's how to combine getting along with China and being able to stand up and discuss disputes — this is where I think the challenge is," he said.
Philippine House Rep. Harry Roque, an international law expert, said that if China resorts to force in the South China Sea, the Philippines can seek a vote of the U.N. General Assembly — not the Security Council, where China has veto powers — authorizing sanctions against Beijing.
U.S.: MORE PATROLS IN THE SOUTH CHINA SEA?
Diplomatically, the U.S. and like-minded allies are trying to put international pressure on China to abide by the findings of the arbitration tribunal.
Militarily, the ruling could tempt the U.S. Navy to sail closer to some of China's artificial islands than it has in the past, just as the Philippines and other Southeast Asian nations may test the waters for fishing and oil and gas exploration.
The Navy has been conducting so-called "freedom of navigation" sails and flights near some of those islands to demonstrate its right to operate in the South China Sea, but it has avoided getting really close, at least publicly.
The tribunal classified some of China's islands as rocks, but others as only "low-tide elevations," which are submerged at high tide and therefore not entitled to 12 nautical miles of territorial sea. They include Hughes Reef and Mischief Reef in the hotly contested Spratly islands.
"In theory we could sail within 500 meters" of Mischief Reef, said Michael McDevitt, a retired U.S. Navy rear admiral with long experience in the Pacific. The reef, built into an island by China, is about 130 miles (210 kilometers) off the Philippines.
Influential Republican Sen. John McCain was among U.S. lawmakers Tuesday calling for the U.S. to challenge "China's excessive maritime claims" regularly.
Doing so could send a message to China to proceed cautiously, though it may not be enough to stop China from doing what it sees as in its own interest.