The Philippines has taken China to a United Nations arbitration tribunal to challenge Beijing’s claim to most of the South China Sea (which the Philippines refers to as the West Philippine Sea) and compel it to respect the Philippines’ right to its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and stop Chinese incursions into areas in the disputed waters claimed by the Philippines.
The Philippines initiated the compulsory proceedings against China as provided for under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos), and asked the UN to declare the Chinese “nine-dash line” outlining its claim to most of the South China Sea, including waters and islands close to its neighbors, as invalid and illegal.
It demands that China “desist from unlawful activities that violate the sovereign rights and jurisdiction of the Philippines under the 1982 Unclos.”
“The Philippines has taken the step of bringing China before the Arbitral Tribunal… in order to achieve a peaceful and durable solution to the dispute over the West Philippine Sea,” Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario told a press briefing Tuesday.
“The Philippines has exhausted almost all political and diplomatic avenues for a peaceful negotiated settlement of its maritime dispute with China… we hope that the arbitral proceedings shall bring this dispute to a durable solution,” he said.
Del Rosario did not take questions. The Department of Foreign Affairs instead issued a question-and-answer statement to reporters.
Allies not involved
The DFA said the move was a decision of the Philippines alone. It said its major allies, the United States and Japan, had nothing to do with the legal action.
It said the action was “in defense of our national territory and maritime domain.”
In a “notification and statement of claim” filed before the UN, the Philippine government said the arbitration was not seeking to declare who owns which islands in the disputed waters.
“The Philippines does not seek in this arbitration a determination of which party enjoys sovereignty over the islands claimed by both of them. Nor does it request a delimitation of any maritime boundaries,” the government said.
In its submission, the Philippines asked the UN to compel China to respect the Philippines’ rights to exclusively explore and exploit resources within its EEZ and continental shelf as declared under Unclos, citing recent Chinese actions that constituted an excessive exercise of sovereignty over disputed territories.
It asked the UN to declare that the Philippines is entitled, as provided for by Unclos, to “12 nautical miles of territorial sea, 200 nautical miles of EEZ and established boundaries of its continental shelf from the baselines.”
The Philippines ratified the 1982 convention in 1984 and China in 1996, but the two countries have conflicting interpretations of its provisions, especially on the scope of exclusive economic zones.
“China’s nine-dash line claim encompasses practically the entire West Philippine Sea. We must challenge the unlawful claim of China… in order to protect our national territory and maritime domain,” the DFA said in a statement.
“We hope that the arbitral tribunal will issue an award in accordance with international law that will direct China to respect our sovereign rights and jurisdiction over our EEZ, continental shelf, contiguous zone and territorial sea over the West Philippine Sea, and to desist from undertaking unlawful acts that violate our rights,” it said.
Beijing envoy summoned
Chinese Ambassador Ma Keqing was summoned at 1 p.m. to the DFA on Tuesday where she was handed a note verbale furnishing China with a copy of the Philippines’ “notification and statement of claim” before the UN.
In the document, the DFA told China that it had decided to seek arbitral proceedings “to clearly establish sovereign rights and jurisdiction of the Philippines over its maritime entitlements in the West Philippine Sea.”
The Chinese Embassy in Manila promptly restated Beijing’s claim to the contested waters and insisted on its position that claimants settle the dispute through negotiations.
In a statement, it said that Ma, on receiving the note verbale, had “reiterated the principled position of the Chinese side, and stressed that China has indisputable sovereignty over the islands in South China Sea and its adjacent waters,” the embassy said in a statement.
“The Chinese side strongly holds the disputes on South China Sea should be settled by parties concerned through negotiations,” it said.
China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea overlap those of the Philippines as well as Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan.
Over the past two years, the Philippines and Vietnam have complained at China’s increasing assertiveness in enforcing those claims, particularly around areas believed to be rich in oil and natural gas reserves.
The Philippines earlier protested a string of incidents involving China in the West Philippine Sea, including sea patrols, oil exploration, military exercises and the establishment of a Chinese administrative unit to govern all of the disputed Spratly Islands.
It has filed at least 15 protests against China for incursions into the disputed waters, Del Rosario has said.
Through the compulsory arbitration, the Philippine government is asking the UN to declare that China had prevented the Philippines from exploiting resources within its EEZ and continental shelf. Instead, China has itself used these resources, violating international law, the government said.
The action also asks the world body to declare that China has violated the Philippines’ right to freely navigate the disputed waters.
The Philippines also hopes the UN will prompt China to “bring its domestic legislation into conformity with its obligations under Unclos.”
The Philippines has a standing protest against a maritime policing law of China’s Hainan province which has allowed its police to intercept, board and inspect foreign vessels sailing into the West Philippine Sea.
The legal action also asks the UN to compel China to stop preventing Philippine vessels from exploring and exploiting Scarborough Shoal—a formation much closer to the Philippines’ coast than to China’s shores that was the site of a standoff between the two countries last year—and Johnson Reef, which are both known to be rich in oil, mineral and marine resources.
It also asks the UN to declare that Mischief Reef and McKennan Reef within the disputed waters as submerged features of the Philippine continental shelf and thus should not be occupied by China.
Finally, it asks the UN to bar Chinese occupation and construction activities on submerged features within the West Philippine Sea.
From 3 to 4 years
The arbitration will be held at an overseas location to be agreed by the two parties.
According to Unclos provisions on arbitration, the adversarial parties would be entitled to nominate their representatives to the five-member arbitration panel, to be “drawn up and maintained” by the UN secretary general.
The Philippines has appointed Judge Rudiger Wolfrum, a German international law expert and justice at the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, as a member of the panel.
Solicitor General Francis Jardeleza will serve as the Philippines’ counsel in the proceedings. With a report from AFP