Lawfare will probably precede warfare in the Pacific against Chinese aggression
...China has been aggressively pushing its claims to disputed islands in the region as well as fishing and mineral rights. Its confrontation goes well beyond the Philippians and includes disputes with Vietnam, Japan and other countries in the region.
While Filipino fishermen seem ready to defend their fishing rights with rocks, firebombs and machetes, the Philippine government is taking a more formal approach—seeking a court ruling from an international tribunal under the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague.
This would appear to be the more sensible means of challenging China’s claims to the Scarborough Shoal (and other areas both claimed by the Philippines and China) under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea; a ruling is expected in late May or early June. Yet if a ruling goes against the interests of China, Beijing will likely ignore the verdict (despite being a signatory to the 1982 Convention) and may continue to create artificial islands, send its fishing boats to disputed waters or declare a South China Sea exclusion zone.
An adverse ruling against Beijing will, however, prove to be a loss of face, and may give the United States more justification to back its treaty ally, the Philippines. American forces are already moving into the region in advance of the ruling, having just obtained access to five Philippine military bases, including an airbase on Palawan, in close proximity to the disputed maritime waters. If the ruling goes against Beijing and they decide to escalate the conflict, their aggression will only lead to a greater presence by the U.S. military, ostensibly in the enforcement of the “common right to all to navigate the seas,” and increase cooperation among the militaries of the United States, Southeast Asia and Japan.