Analysts say China will likely ignore the Philippines' decision to take a long-running territorial feud to an international tribunal, continuing its insistence on solving maritime disputes without third party involvement.
Philippine foreign secretary Albert del Rosario said Tuesday his government will take the issue to an arbitral tribunal under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which has been ratified by both countries.
The Philippines wants the panel to reject China's claims to nearly the entire South China Sea. It is also challenging what it says is China's "illegal" activity around reefs and rocks it says are part of Manila's exclusive economic zone under the U.N. convention.
Most observers say China will almost certainly not agree to participate in the panel, in keeping with its long-standing policy of solving territorial disputes through direct negotiations.
Carl Thayer of Australia's University of New South Wales tells VOA the tribunal may be able to move forward without Chinese participation. He says the Philippines hopes a favorable decision would give it a moral victory.
"It's [a case] that not only has the legal side, but also has a strong moral suasion. If the tribunal ruled even partly in the Philippines' favor, it would deflate China's claims and give more legality and international cover to the Philippines."
But Thayer says the court's decision, though technically "binding," could easily be ignored by China, since there is no mechanism included to enforce any possible ruling.
Sam Bateman, a maritime security expert, acknowledges China's refusal to participate in the tribunal "probably won't be a great public relations success." But he tells VOA that may be exactly what the Philippines government is aiming for.
"I see it in many ways as a bold gesture by the Philippines, hoping that China will respond negatively," says Bateman, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, who described the move as Manila's "attempt to take the high ground."
"If China were to choose to opt out [of the tribunal], of course this would lead to another round of perhaps international condemnation, you know another example of China's assertiveness and lack of preparedness to operate, and those sort of things."
But Bateman says all countries, including China, have the right under UNCLOS to opt out of arbitration that involves binding decisions on issues related to maritime boundaries and sovereignty disputes.
That appears to be the route chosen by Beijing. On Tuesday, the Chinese ambassador to the Philippines reasserted China's "indisputable sovereignty" over waters in the South China Sea, saying China supports a negotiated settlement "through peaceful means."
In any case, most analysts agree that the competing claims of China and the Philippines are unlikely to be resolved soon, and that the case will take three to four years to work through the international tribunal.