MANILA, Philippines–The United Nations arbitral tribunal has ordered China to defend its territorial claims in the South China Sea by submitting evidence within six months despite Beijing’s refusal to respond to the Philippines’ legal challenge to those sweeping claims.
The UN Permanent Court of Arbitration said in a statement issued in The Hague on Tuesday that the arbitral tribunal had directed China to submit by Dec. 15 its response to the Philippine memorandum submitted on March 30, detailing its case that seeks to nullify the Chinese claims and clarify maritime entitlements in the disputed waters.
It was the first international case filed against China related to territorial disputes in the 3.5-million-square-kilometer sea where islands, islets, reefs and shoals are believed to be sitting atop vast oil and gas reserves.
China has rejected the order, saying it has no plans to take part.
Aside from China and the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam claim overlapping parts of the South China Sea, with Beijing saying it has sovereignty over virtually all of the resource-rich waters. China’s disputes with the Philippines and Vietnam have worsened recently, especially after it deployed an oil rig early last month in waters also claimed by Hanoi, sparking violent anti-China protests in Vietnam.
Next armed conflict
There have been fears the territorial disputes could spark Asia’s next armed conflict, although analysts say a major fight is unlikely given that major instability could shatter the region’s bullish economies.
Beijing’s aggressive moves in the disputed waters, which straddle one of the world’s busiest sea lanes, were “dangerous conduct and intimidation” that rachets tension and could undermine the economically vibrant region, said US Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzky, who is visiting Manila with American business executives.
China has warned the United States to stop meddling.
It has said all along it will not participate in the arbitration proceedings initiated by the Philippines in January last year, preferring a bilateral approach to resolve the conflicts.
Beijing informed the tribunal on May 21 that it “does not accept the arbitration initiated by the Philippines” and that its issuance of a comment on the case should “not be regarded as China’s acceptance of or participation in the proceedings.”
Philippine officials on Wednesday reiterated a call to China to join the arbitration as a peaceful and durable solution to resolve the long-raging territorial disputes.
China’s stance unchanged
Charles Jose, spokesman for the Department of Foreign Affairs, said, “We continue to urge China to reconsider its decision not to participate in the arbitration proceedings. We also wish to reiterate that arbitration is a peaceful, open and friendly resolution mechanism that offers a durable solution to the disputes in the South China Sea.”
But China’s foreign ministry said on Wednesday that Beijing’s “stance of not accepting and not participating in the relevant Philippines’ arbitration case has not changed.”
The Philippines is seeking confirmation of its right to exploit waters within a 370-km exclusive economic zone, as allowed under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, its lawyers have said.
In giving China time to respond to the Philippines’ filing, the tribunal said on Monday that it was fulfilling its obligation to assure each party “a full opportunity to be heard and to present its case.”
The UN tribunal issued the order after a meeting at the Peace Palace in The Hague, the Netherlands, on May 14 and 15, or a month and a half since Manila submitted its memorandum.
As the tribunal described it, the document covers “matters relating to the jurisdiction of the arbitral tribunal, the admissibility of the Philippines’ claim, as well as the merits of the dispute.”
Noting China’s May 21 rejection, the tribunal suggested it would continue hearing the Philippine complaint even without Beijing’s involvement.
“The arbitral tribunal will determine the further course of the proceedings, including the need for, and scheduling of any other written submissions and hearings, at an appropriate later stage, after seeking the views of the parties,” the tribunal said.
The Philippine case asks the UN tribunal to invalidate China’s “nine-dash-line” claim over the South China Sea. That refers to a rough Chinese demarcation on its official maps of its territorial claims that cover virtually the entire South China.
The Philippines charges that the nine-dash-line claim is an “excessive declaration of territory” that extends well beyond China’s exclusive economic zone, encroaching on the West Philippine Sea, part of the South China Sea within Manila’s own economic exclusion zone.
If China continues to shun the arbitral panel, the tribunal is likely to schedule a hearing and rule based solely on the Philippines’ pleading.
“China has a right to be heard, that’s why the court issued the procedural order. If they will still refuse to participate, the court might decide based on the Philippines’ submission,” Jose said.
The Philippines’ legal action has gained support from the international community, including allies the United States and Japan, for being a peaceful means to resolve the increasingly tense territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
The Philippine arbitration case is closely watched by the other claimant states, including Vietnam, which last month said it was considering legal action against China after Beijing moved a deep-water oil rig into the East Sea, part of the South China Sea within Hanoi’s exclusive economic zone.
China earlier said that the Philippine legal action has “seriously damaged” relations between Manila and Beijing.–With a report from AP
Originally posted at 5:46 pm | Wednesday, June 4, 2014