PH power team to The Hague; UN tribunal to rule first on jurisdiction
President Benigno Aquino III has assembled a top-caliber delegation to the oral arguments on the Philippine case against China before the United Nations arbitral tribunal in The Hague, which will first decide whether it has jurisdiction over Manila’s petition to nullify Beijing’s claim to nearly all of the South China Sea.
The oral arguments open next week as China rushes the completion of artificial islands on Philippine-claimed reefs in the Spratly archipelago, in what is seen as a strategy to hand the UN tribunal a fait accompli in the event the court accepts the case and rules in Manila’s favor.
Jay Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, said China’s island-building in the Spratlys had for sure drawn the attention of the UN arbitral tribunal.
“They will be very, very careful in what they do and analyze the issue. They will be attentive to the details,” Batongbacal said when asked in a telephone interview whether the tribunal would consider China’s island-building in looking into the Philippine petition.
But first the tribunal needs to decide whether it has jurisdiction over the case.
Jurisdiction is perhaps the most crucial step the Philippines has to hurdle in pressing its case against China, Batongbacal said.
“It is the threshold preliminary question that has to be answered in our favor before the tribunal decides on the merit of the case,” he said.
Batongbacal said the tribunal would likely issue a “mixed ruling.”
“It’s more realistic [that, yes, it has jurisdiction than] no, it has no jurisdiction,” he said.
This is because there are specific claims in the Philippine petition, such as the claim over Panatag Shoal (Scarborough Shoal) and China’s claim over almost 90 percent of the 3.5-million-square-kilometer South China Sea, he explained.
“Each one has a jurisdictional and admissibility issue,” he said.
Malacañang has not released the list of officials going to the oral arguments but the Inquirer has learned that the group leaving for The Hague this weekend includes members of the Cabinet security cluster.
The oral arguments from July 7 to 11 will tackle jurisdiction and case admissibility and not yet the merits of the case, Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario told the Inquirer.
The Inquirer learned that aside from Del Rosario, those who will attend the oral arguments as observers are Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa, Justice Secretary Leila de Lima, Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin, Undersecretary Abigail Valte and Undersecretary Emmanuel Bautista, executive director of the Cabinet cluster on security, justice and peace.
Also members of the delegation are Supreme Court Justices Antonio Carpio and Francis Jardeleza and Sandiganbayan Justice Sarah Jane Fernandez.
Senate President Franklin Drilon and House Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. are also joining the delegation, the Inquirer has learned.
To argue the Philippine case in the closed-door hearing is Solicitor General Florin Hilbay. He will be assisted by an American lawyer retained by the government, Paul Reichler of Foley and Hoag LLP.
China fuming mad
Inquirer sources said China was fuming over the Philippines’ insistence on international arbitration to settle their territorial dispute in the South China Sea.
China has refused to take part in the proceedings, insisting on bilateral negotiations even as it gobbles up reefs in the heavily disputed Spratly archipelago, building artificial islands that other claimants to territory in the South China Sea fear it will use to impose its will on its rivals in the region.
Besides the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan claim parts of the South China Sea, a waterway believed to be home to vast oil and gas reserves and crisscrossed by sea-lanes where $5 trillion in global trade passes every year.
The US think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) reported on Sunday that a 3,000-meter runway that China was building on Philippine-claimed Kagitingan Reef (Fiery Cross Reef) in the Spratly archipelago was “nearly complete.”
A satellite picture taken on Sunday showed that China was paving and marking the runway on Kagitingan, and an apron and taxiway had been added, CSIS said on its website.
China’s project to build artificial islands and facilities on various reefs and outcrops in the Spratlys only became publicly known in recent months but construction has since been rapid, raising tensions with its neighbors that also claim parts of the South China Sea and with the United States.
Washington has weighed sending warships and aircraft within 22 kilometers of the artificial islands to test China’s extensive claim over the South China Sea.
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