MANILA, Philippines—The Aquino administration on Saturday said it sought United Nations arbitration as a “last resort” because China had refused to withdraw its ships from Bajo de Masinloc (Scarborough Shoal), which the country insists is within Philippine territory.
Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario pointed out that it was China—not the Philippines—that was now occupying the contested shoal.
Del Rosario was answering China’s accusation that the Philippines’ resort to international arbitration was an attempt to “cover in a cloak of legality its occupation of Chinese islands and reefs in the South China Sea.” China was referring to the Philippines’ occupation of some areas in the contested Spratlys group of islands.
The Philippines last week informed China that it had asked the Arbitral Tribunal under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to declare as illegal China’s nine-dash-line map, which claims almost all the islands in the South China Sea and encompasses territories the Philippines believes it rightfully owns.
China has said it was against internationalizing the issue and proposed bilateral negotiations instead. The Philippines’ move also came as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), of which the Philippines is a founding member, continued talks to draw up a code of conduct to prevent conflicts regarding territorial claims in the South China Sea.
Del Rosario said the country formally sought the assistance of the Arbitral Tribunal after all other remedies had been exhausted.
“The Philippine choice of arbitration under Unclos is the last resort for a peaceful resolution on disputes in the West Philippine Sea after exhaustion of political and diplomatic approaches,” Del Rosario told the Inquirer by phone on Saturday.
On Friday, in a briefing at Malacañang, he said, “The Chinese have tried to establish a de facto occupation of Bajo de Masinloc. When we last checked, I think they had two maritime surveillance vessels there and then they had a fisheries law enforcement boat. So they have three vessels there.
He said this was what prompted the government to avail itself of the option of international arbitration.
“That train has left the station and we are trying to proceed with that. We believe that will yield the results that we’re after in terms of providing a durable solution. Any solution that we would have come up with, short of a solution that is derived from the (Unclos), I think at best (would be) a transactional solution and not a durable one,” said Del Rosario.
According to him, Manila had three approaches to deal with the sea dispute: political, diplomatic (through bilateral relations) and legal.
“I think that we have significantly moved, of course, in parallel to try and utilize all of those approaches. And we got to a point where we felt that as far as the political and the diplomatic approaches are concerned, we had exerted every possible effort there and yielded no results. So we have filed an arbitration case,” he said.
“For the Philippines, it will clarify what is ours. It will define our maritime entitlements related to fishing, access to natural resources and law enforcement in our exclusive economic zone in accordance with Unclos,” he said.
“For all other nations, it will remove the threat to freedom of navigation from the region,” Del Rosario said.
The Philippines believes China’s nine-dash line is an “excessive declaration” of its maritime territory, as it encompasses all of the West Philippine Sea, including territories closer to the Philippine shoreline than to China’s.