BEIJING—China on Friday accused the Philippines of trying to legalize its occupation of islands in the disputed West Philippine Sea (South China Sea), repeating that Beijing would never agree to international arbitration.
The Philippines is seeking a United Nations ruling on the validity of Chinese claims to the resource-rich sea, with a possible unfavorable verdict for China seen as a test of its willingness to yield over territorial disputes.
Manila said on Thursday that a UN arbitration court had set up a tribunal that would handle the Philippine case, but China said this was an attempt to steal Chinese territory.
Manila’s announcement came after Shunjai Yanai, president of the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (Itlos), informed the Philippines about the appointment of the last three arbiters to the panel that would handle the Philippine case and rule on the country’s bid to clarify its rights in the West Philippine Sea.
On Friday, Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario told reporters in Manila that the UN arbitral tribunal may open deliberations on the merits of the Philippine case by July.
The deliberations will proceed even without the participation of China, Del Rosario said.
Any decision the tribunal hands down will be “final and unappealable,” Del Rosario said.
“The first thing they will do starting Monday is to organize themselves and establish the rules of the tribunal,” Del Rosario said.
“The second thing that they will do is determine whether they have jurisdiction over the case,” he said. “That should take another couple of months and maybe by July, they can already be working on the merits of the case.”
The Philippines brought the case in January, asking the United Nations to order a halt to China’s activities that it said violated Philippine sovereignty over islands within its 360-kilometer exclusive economic zone recognized under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos).
Invoking that law, the Philippines asked the tribunal to invalidate China’s “nine-dash line” map, as it encroaches on the Philippine exclusive economic zone. The map shows Chinese territory covering almost the whole West Philippine Sea, including the islands near the shores of its neighbors that are believed to be sitting atop vast energy and mineral reserves.
China’s foreign ministry posted a statement on its website on Friday saying the Philippines was attempting to “cover in a cloak of ‘legality’ its illegal occupation of Chinese islands and reefs.”
Beijing called on the Philippines to immediately withdraw all personnel and facilities from the islands that it said the Filipinos were occupying. Those include five islands in the Spratly archipelago in the West Philippine Sea.
China has returned the Philippine notification of proceedings on the UN arbitral tribunal, rejecting arbitration and asserting “indisputable sovereignty” over the sea.
Instead of arbitration, China insisted on negotiations with the Philippines to settle the territorial dispute in the West Philippine Sea.
“The position outlined by China will not change,” the Chinese foreign ministry statement said.
The Unclos does not apply in this case, as what the Philippines is asking for is a decision on sovereignty, the ministry said.
“China’s refusal to accept the Philippines’ request for arbitration has full grounding in international law,” it said.
The Chinese statement came a day after the leaders of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) called for urgent talks with China to seek a resolution to the increasingly tense territorial disputes in the West Philippine Sea.
After efforts to engage China in talks on a code of conduct in the West Philippine Sea all but collapsed last year at a summit in Cambodia, a close economic ally of China, the Asean leaders agreed on Thursday to send their foreign ministers to a meeting ahead of an Asean-China meeting expected in August to establish solidarity on the proposed code.
Asean members the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei claim parts of the sea, as does Taiwan. The competing claims have for decades made the area one of Asia’s potential powder kegs.
The Philippines accused China of occupying Panatag Shoal (Scarborough Shoal), resource-rich shallows within the country’s exclusive economic zone, after breaking an agreement on the withdrawal of the two countries’ ships to ease tensions in the area.
The Chinese occupation of the shoal forced the Philippines to take action in the UN arbitration court.
Enforcement another matter
Asked whether the court’s ruling would be binding on China, Del Rosario answered: “Once it’s been determined that they have jurisdiction, ultimately an award will come down, and that award will be final and it will not be appealable.”
In a recent interview by e-mail, international law expert Tom Ginsburg, a professor at the University of Chicago, said that while the UN tribunal’s rulings are binding on both parties, there is no guarantee that China will comply.
“The panel decision is binding regardless of whether a party participates,” Ginsburg said. “Enforcement, however, is another matter.”
Ginsburg said that most international laws assume parties will comply in good faith, but this does not always happen.
“I do not expect that anyone will be able to force China to comply with any adverse decision that is issued,” he said. With a report from Agence France-Presse