Friday, December 15, 2017
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After UN court ruling, PH braces for China’s response

The Philippines will stay on the “diplomatic track” despite warnings by security experts that the decision of a United Nations arbitral court to hear the country’s maritime complaint against China could make Beijing more aggressive in asserting its claims in the South China Sea.

The Palace would not speculate, however, on what China might do next after the UN Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled on Thursday that it had jurisdiction over the Philippine case seeking to invalidate China’s claim to almost all of the South China Sea.

“We will not speculate on what further action or reaction [China will take]… China has already spoken on the ruling,” presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda said over government-run Radyo ng Bayan on Saturday.

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Maritime security experts have warned that the UN tribunal’s decision could prompt China into becoming more assertive in the South China Sea.

Lacierda said the Philippines has “always resorted to the diplomatic track.”

Decision by June

 

“Obviously, our track is to go by way of arbitration and we will continue to pursue that track. It just helped us. The PCA has looked with favor on our petition, so we look forward to presenting the merits of the case,” Lacierda said.

The arbitral court will hear the merits of Manila’s case against China from Nov. 24 to 30.

Paul Reichler, chief counsel for the Philippines in the case, said on Friday that a final ruling could come as early as June next year.

China has refused to take part in the proceedings, arguing that the Permanent Court of Arbitration, which is more than a century old, has no jurisdiction over the case.

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After Thursday’s decision, China reiterated its position of not accepting any ruling, or participating in the arbitration.

“We will not participate and we will not accept the arbitration,” Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin told reporters in Beijing.

“The ruling or the result of arbitration will not affect China’s position,” Liu said.

China insists it has sovereign rights to nearly all of 3.5-million-square-kilometer South China Sea, a strategic waterway through which a third of global trade passes every year.

Besides the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam also claim parts of the South China Sea. Taiwan is a sixth claimant, laying claim to all of the sea where islets, reefs and atolls are believed to be sitting atop vast deposits of oil and natural gas.

Violation of Unclos

The Philippines says China’s claim to nearly all of the sea is inconsistent with the UN Convention on the Laws of the Sea (Unclos).

The Philippines also accuses China of violating Unclos by interfering with Manila’s exercise of its sovereign rights within its exclusive economic zone.

Manila mounted the case in January 2013, prompting China to accelerate the construction of artificial islands on reefs and shoals in the Spratly archipelago to present the UN court with a fait accompli.

Its action in the Spratlys has drawn opposition from the Southeast Asian claimants and the United States, which challenged China’s claim by sending a guided missile destroyer, the USS Lassen, within 21 km of one of the artificial islands on Oct. 21.

The Chinese monitored the passage of the US warship, but took no other action.

China and Vietnam have fought naval battles over their territorial dispute in the South China Sea.

‘Big chance’ of winning

The Philippines has no military muscle to flex, leaving Chinese coast guard vessels unchallenged in shooing away Filipino fishermen from Panatag Shoal (Scarborough Shoal) off Zambales province and harassing civilian ships restocking a small military garrison stationed in a rusting hospital ship on Ayungin Shoal (Second Thomas Shoal) in the Spratlys.

Former Justice Secretary Leila de Lima on Saturday said there was a “big chance” that the Philippines would win Round 2 with China in the arbitral court.

“Although this is just on the issue of jurisdiction and not yet on the merits of the case, it is already a recognition that the issues raised by the Philippines on China’s nine-dash-line claim are cognizable and justiciable under the Unclos,” said De Lima, who was part of the Philippine delegation to the oral arguments called by the tribunal in July.

“The challenge now for the Philippines is to make its position clearer as requested by the tribunal in the same decision. Because of this, I now have reason to be very optimistic that the Philippines has a big chance of winning this case against China,” she told the Inquirer in a text message.

De Lima cited the Oct. 21 US Navy sail-by in the Spratlys as an illustration of Unclos provisions that bind nations to respect freedom of navigation in international waters.

“We must remember that the provisions of Unclos verily contradict any arbitrary claim to any portion of international waters, such as the West Philippine Sea, especially if this is based on imagined, contrived, and fictional historic claims,” De Lima said, referring to China’s mammoth claim in the South China Sea.

She said claims may only apply to land territory, and “never to international waters,” even to artificial islands created through land reclamation, as China has been doing.

Lot of hard work

Supreme Court Associate Justice Francis Jardeleza, who was solicitor general when the Philippines initiated the arbitration, is “happy that we have hurdled the jurisdictional phase.”

“A lot of hard work remains to be done by our splendid team and we look forward, and hope and pray, that we also win on the merits,” said Jardeleza, who continues to advise the Philippine legal team.

The arbitral court accepted for further proceedings the determination of the status of Philippine-claimed formations in the disputed waters, including Panatag Shoal (international name: Scarborough Shoal),  Panganiban Reef (Mischief Reef), Burgos (Gaven) and McKennan (Chigua) reefs, and Mabini (Johnson South), Calderon (Cuarteron) and Kagitingan (Fiery Cross) reefs.

An award on whether these features are island or low-tide elevations is important, as a formation’s status determines whether it entitles a country to an exclusive economic zone or continental shelf.

A critical issue to be taken up by the panel is the Philippines’ assertion that China has impeded the country’s exercise of sovereign rights to islands within its EEZ, including fishing at the Panatag Shoal.

Taiwan speaks

Amid jubilation in the Philippines, Taiwan, a party in the six-way dispute, said yesterday that while it “takes note” of the jurisdiction award, it does not recognize the same.

“The Philippines has not invited Taiwan to participate in its arbitration with mainland China, and the arbitral tribunal has not solicited the Taiwan’s views,”  said the foreign ministry of Taiwan, considered a province of China under the one-China policy.

“Therefore, the arbitration does not affect Taiwan in any way, and [it] neither recognizes nor accepts related awards,” the  ministry in a statement.

Long asserting its independent claims in the South China Sea, Taiwan has long occupied Itu Aba (Taiping Island), also being claimed by China, Vietnam and the Philippines. Itu Aba is known in the Philippines as Ligao Island.

It reiterated its commitment to Unclos and respect for freedom of navigation, noting that it has been defending Itu Aba and other islands “without ever getting into military conflict with other nations.”

It called on other parties to do the same to maintain peace and stability in the disputed waters. With reports from AP and Reuters

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TAGS: Ayungin Shoal, Beijing, Panatag Shoal, Paul Reichler, Permanent Court of Arbitration, Scarborough Shoal, Second Thomas Shoal, South China Sea, The Hague, UN Convention on the Laws of the Sea, UN Court ruling, UN Permanent Court of Arbitration, Unclos, United Nations, Zambales Province
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