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International Tribunal Set To Rule On China's Claim To South China Sea


An international tribunal will rule tomorrow on China's claim to almost the entire South China Sea. China has been building artificial islands to reinforce its claim. The case against the country was brought by the Philippines. It challenges Beijing's historic claim in a region steeped in history, and that history has kept the U.S. engaged in the area. From Manila, Michael Sullivan explains.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: To all passengers bound for Corregidor, please proceed at the boarding area. This is your final call. Thank you.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Almost every morning at 8 o'clock, tourists board the high-speed ferry at Manila's Esplanade Terminal for the hour-and-a-half-long trip to the island of Corregidor 30 miles to the southwest for their day-long tour of the Rock.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: OK, good morning everyone, and hello. Welcome to the historical island. Corregidor is said to be the second-most-bombarded island in the world.

SULLIVAN: The island fortress guards the entrance to Manila Bay, and when Japan invaded the day after Pearl Harbor in World War II, Corregidor became a powerful symbol of the Filipino and American resistance to the Japanese invaders, the last time the U.S. and the Philippines squared off against an East Asian Power.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: You can see two soldiers here, soldiers in arms, American and Filipino. American is helping the wounded Filipino because we are friends for a century old.

SULLIVAN: Corregidor lasted longer than the rest of the Philippines but fell, as did much of the Pacific, a few months later. After U.S.-led forces eventually defeated the Japanese in 1945, the Philippines was a year later granted its independence by the United States, which had made it a colony after winning a war with Spain a half century earlier. Here's the Universal Studios newsreel announcing the event.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: After 48 years of American sovereignty, the people of the Philippines assume the status of an independent nation. The transfer is made on the Fourth of July.

SULLIVAN: Huge crowds, the announcer intones, jammed the capital Manila to witness the birth of the republic.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: In a message, President Truman assured our continued support.

SULLIVAN: More than half a century later, that support is still there sort of.

ANTONIO CARPIO: The U.S. has been very clear that they do not take sides in territorial disputes in the South China Sea, but they said they would honor the Mutual Defense Treaty.

SULLIVAN: That treaty, says Philippine Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio, obliges the U.S. to come to the Philippines' aid if it's attacked. But that hasn't happened. Instead China has been skillfully slicing off contested bits of coral or rock then reclaiming it, building artificial islands despite competing claims not just from the Philippines but Vietnam and Taiwan, too.

CARPIO: A country cannot claim an entire sea. That happened in the 1400s and 1500s when Portugal and Spain divided the world. But we're past that era.

SULLIVAN: The Philippines is hoping the tribunal rules in its favor tomorrow. It's also hoping the U.S. continues its freedom of navigation patrols near China's newly constructed islands and continues its efforts to discourage China from going ahead with construction on another disputed feature, the Scarborough Shoal just 120 miles from the Philippines mainland. Jay Batongbacal heads the Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea at the University of the Philippines.

JAY BATONGBACAL: Because really I mean all of this activity is intended to deter that final Chinese decision to transform the Shoal.

SULLIVAN: China says it won't abide by the tribunal's decision, whatever it is. It hasn't said what it plans to do about the Scarborough Shoal. For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Manila. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.