Exactly a year ago, today – 12 July – the Philippines scored a massive victory over China in the South China Sea territorial dispute.

China claims almost all of the South China Sea, which is the crucial passage of an estimated $5tn trade each year, through its "nine-dash line" demarcation. The international waterway is believed to hold a wealth of untapped oil and natural gas deposits. Besides China, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Taiwan and Vietnam also have overlapping claims over the disputed islands.

In a landmark ruling, the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague stated that there was "no legal basis" for China to claim historic rights to the South China Sea. The long-awaited decision came after the Philippines took the cause to the tribunal, challenging Beijing's right to exploit resources in the disputed waters.

But has the Philippines reaped the fruits of the ruling yet?

"A year after the ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague, the Philippines and China are now in dialogue," said Philippines Presidential spokesperson Ernesto Abella said on Tuesday (11 July).

But clearly, a year has gone with Manila failing to fully affirm its victory at the Hague tribunal over the South China Sea, the Asian Correspondent noted.

Just last month, a US-based think tank reported that China was inching a step closer to military dominance in the hotly contested sea as it has continued to build missile shelters on islands there.

The new facilities are being built on Fiery Cross, Mischief and Subi Reefs in the Spratly archipelago. It paves the way for Beijing to deploy an array of military assets in the region, said the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI), part of Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies.

While China's militarisation has rapidly grown in the past one year, the Philippines has not seen the change that it would have wanted from Beijing, said Albert del Rosario, former ambassador of the Philippines to the US.

South China Sea
Chinese dredging vessels are purportedly seen in the waters around Mischief Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea U.S. Navy/Handout via Reuters/File Photo

"It has neither changed in its direction nor exercised greater restraint," he wrote in an article for the Philippine-based Inquirer news portal.

"Despite its friendlier face, we do not see restraint in China's militarization and unlawful activity in the West Philippine Sea," del Rosario said. Manila refers to the South China Sea as the West Philippines Sea.

According to the Philippine daily, it was del Rosario who led the previous Philippines government as its foreign affairs secretary in challenging China's claims in the territorial dispute.

'Threat of war'

Ever since the 12 July verdict was out, Beijing has been firm on its stand that it would neither accept the ruling, nor respect it.

It has, in fact, been threatening of going to "war at sea" as tensions escalated over the South China Sea dispute soon after the ruling.

But the Philippine's newly formed government last year under the leadership of President Rodrigo Duterte played down the tribunal victory to avoid triggering Chinese anger. He also leaned towards the communist country for a friendly alliance and sought to resolve the dispute through dialogues and bilateral talks.

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Chinese President Xi Jinping himself had reportedly threatened Duterte about going to war if Manila tried to explore for oil in the disputed sea.

"Well, we are friends. We do not want to quarrel with you. We would want to maintain the present warm relationship. But if you force the issue, we will go to war," Xi reportedly told Duterte on the sidelines of China's Belt and Road summit on 14-15 May.

However, Manila downplayed the entire incident.

"Despite an effort in this country to encourage sobriety and restraint, I am concerned that we will reap no more than a friendly face [from Beijing]," del Rosario noted.

While Duterte sought friendship in his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping, his own ministers were wary of the Philippines' position in the sea.

His former foreign secretary Perfecto Yasay said earlier in February that he believed the South China Sea dispute would not be resolved "in our lifetime". He suggested that it was better to set aside the territorial dispute topic rather than confronting Beijing, which could trigger further tensions in the region.

Dialogues and diplomacy

"Since assuming office, President Duterte has pursued an "independent foreign policy" that keeps the ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration on the back burner," said Dindo Manhit, president of the Philippines-based Stratbase ADR Institute for Strategic and International Studies.

Given that Duterte is warming relations with Xi, Manila can "recalibrate its current policy and render it independent in the fullest sense," he added.

Rodrigo Duterte, Xi Jinping
Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte (L) has been seeking warmer relations with Chinese President Xi Jinping, distancing Manila from its long-time ally, the US REUTERS/Ng Han Guan/Pool

Beijing's aggressive actions in the South China Sea are not accidental, they are intentional, and they continue to this day, del Rosario, who currently chairs the Stratbase ADR Institute, noted.

But he suggested that Manila should first "exhaust all diplomatic avenues that are available" to push China to comply with The Hague ruling.

He also urged the Duterte government to be categorical in protecting Manila's sovereignty and national security over the South China Sea.

Both the sides held their first bilateral talks on the South China Sea only in May, which was 10 months after the 12 July tribunal last year. And a second meeting is not scheduled before the end of this year, by when both the countries are expected to reach a mutually acceptable arrangement, the Asian Correspondent reported.

South China Sea Code of Conduct

In a bid to reduce tensions over the territorial dispute, 11 members of the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean) have been discussing, since 2010, a set of rules to be followed to avoid conflict in the South China Sea.

Asean meeting South China Sea
Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean) Foreign Ministers link arms during the Asean Foreign Ministers' Retreat in Boracay, central Philippines on 21 February where they expressed concerns over growing tensions surrounding the South China Sea maritime dispute Reuters

As this year's chair of the Asean, the Philippines has an opportunity to set forth some rule for China to abide by, del Rosario said. Such opportunity comes only once in a decade.

"There is room for us to steer the discussions on the proposed code of conduct [in the South China Sea], to ensure that it is effective, binding, and quickly concluded," he said.