One day, the Philippines will wake up holding an empty bag when China agrees to grant the United States freedom of navigation in the South China Sea in exchange for resources beneath the strategic waterway.

This was the pragmatic scenario given by Antonio Carpio, an international maritime law expert and retired Supreme Court senior associate justice, as the Philippines struggles to fight for its economic rights in the South China Sea.

The Philippines has no claims to the entire South China Sea. It only claims parts of what it calls the West Philippine Sea, particularly in the Spratly Islands.

China, Taiwan and Vietnam are claiming the entire body of water as part of their sovereignty even if the areas are beyond their 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone.

The Philippines has claims over territory in the Spratly Islands based on the nine land features it occupies. Vietnam occupies the most number of land features. China has eight artificial islands, Malaysia has four, and Taiwan has Itu Aba, the largest island in the Spratly. Brunei has taken over some land features near its short coastline, outside of Spratly archipelago.

The Philippines is having difficulty asserting its claims on the West Philippine Sea, including on its sovereign waters, because the country’s leader has set aside a landmark ruling made by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague in exchange for the $24 billion in economic pledges from China, which remained unfulfilled.

The country’s future depends much on the resources in the West Philippine Sea, which Rodrigo Duterte allowed the Chinese to wantonly exploit.

For instance, the expensive “galunggong” sold in the public market are imported from China, but are fished from Philippine waters.

The country’s small and wooden fishing boats are no match to China’s hundreds of huge, steel-hulled industrial fishing fleets, which were deployed to the Spratly Islands beginning December.

The government only protested its presence in late March, nearly a month and half before Beijing imposed a fishing ban in the South China Sea up to August.

There will be more trouble if oil and gas resources are found to be abundant in the area as the Philippines has not completed its exploration and seismic studies there.

Evidence of energy resources has been found in areas near the sovereign waters of Vietnam and Malaysia and China has tried to drill for oil and gas within these areas.

In a television interview, Carpio warned that the Philippines would lose these resources if world powers agreed to freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.

The United States’ national interest is to protect international shipping routes in the South China Sea, where $3 trillion worth of seaborne trade passes every year.

The US is interested only in freedom of navigation and overflights in the South China Sea, posing a challenge to China’s sovereignty claims in the waterway, which could hamper global trade.

The US is only trying to prevent China from gaining dominance in the South China Sea.

The country with the strongest navy dominates the seas and dominates the world.

The ancient Greeks and Romans built expansive empires with strong naval power. Even Genghis Khan who ruled most of continental Asia and Europe in the 13th century had a strong navy.

Marco Polo, a merchant from Europe who served in the court of Kublai Khan during the Yuan dynasty in China, had written about the Mongols’ navy reaching Southeast Asia and Persia — modern day Iran — during his time. The succeeding Ming Dynasty had its navy reaching the African coasts.

Sultan Mehmed II, who conquered Constantinople and ended the Byzantine empire in the middle of the 15th century, had built a formidable navy. The Ottoman empire ruled southern Europe, Turkey, the Middle East and North Africa up to the early 20th century with a strong navy.

European powers Spain and England ruled the seas in the 16th to the 18th centuries and the US made its presence felt in the 19th century.

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union competed with the US in controlling the seas. The country that dominates the seven seas controls global trade.

China is behaving like the United States after it first sent its navy to protect its international shipping from pirates in the Straits of Hormuz, the strategic chokepoint between the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman in the Middle East.

It has sent its navy to conduct freedom of navigation operations in the Arctic Ocean, the Indian Ocean, the seas near Alaska, Guam and Hawaii in the Pacific Ocean, and the Mediterranean Sea.

Washington never raised protests but China has been very jealous in protecting its interests in the South China Sea as the US Navy sails close to its artificial islands’ 12-nautical-mile territorial waters.

If one day China agrees to the US having freedom of navigation in the South China Sea as Washington does not oppose Beijing’s freedom of navigation near its sovereign waters, the Philippines will lose its powerful ally.

It will be at the mercy of China’s expansive and excessive claims in the South China Sea.

There’s a precedent as regards world powers entering into an agreement and leaving smaller countries to hang dry. In 1898, Madrid and Washington signed a treaty in Paris ending their war and ceding the Philippines to the United States.

Gen. Emilio Aguinaldo thought the Americans would help the Filipinos expel the Spaniards after three centuries of colonial rule, but he was wrong.

Carpio’s warning should not be taken with a grain of salt. One day it might come true. But for now, the United States is still on the Philippine side.

The US conduct of freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea is seen as an enforcement of the international ruling the Philippines won at The Hague in 2016 as it challenges China’s nine-dash-line claims, which was rejected by the arbitral court.

The Philippines rejects China’s nine-dash-line claims and will continue to invoke the arbitral ruling until Beijing accepts and comply with the decision.

The US and Philippine interests run parallel as long as Washington considers Beijing its biggest threat and its strongest rival.

The US, with its 12 carrier battle groups, still dominates the sea even if China has the largest navy in the world built around two carriers, an amphibious assault ship and 66 submarines.

China has been catching up in technology, space and other fields. It may overtake the United States as the world’s biggest economy by the end of the decade as Washington struggles to recover from the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

Beijing has already set its eyes on 2049, the 100th year anniversary of the Communist Party’s rise to power in China, looking to dominate the world not only as the No. 1 economy but as the strongest military power in the world.

When that happens, Carpio’s words may come true and the Philippines will be left holding an empty bag.