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It’s make or break for PH at The Hague

Next week’s oral arguments before the United Nations arbitral tribunal in The Hague will determine whether the Philippines’ challenge to China’s claim over almost the entire South China Sea should end or proceed to discussions that may lead to a peaceful settlement of the territorial dispute between the two countries.

The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said on Friday that the oral arguments, set for July 7 to 11, will tackle only the issue of whether the UN tribunal has jurisdiction over the case.

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If the tribunal rules that it has no jurisdiction over the case then “that is the end,” Charles Jose, spokesperson for the DFA, told reporters.

“They cannot proceed to the merits of the case,” Jose added.

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If the tribunal decides that it is the proper forum to hear the case, then it can be expected to schedule oral arguments on the merits of the Philippines’ case, he said.

The Philippine legal team, led by Solicitor General Florin Hilbay, will argue that the UN tribunal has jurisdiction over the case.

Jose said the Philippines had prepared well for the oral arguments. Since the arbitration case was filed in January 2013, the Philippines had submitted written arguments consisting of voluminous documents and other evidence to bolster its challenge to China’s claim, he said.

Asked about the impact of the case on China’s island-building in the heavily disputed Spratly archipelago, Jose said the tribunal’s decision would be a “fundamental first step toward a peaceful and rules-based resolution of the issue.”

Top-level delegation

Aside from Hilbay, Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario will also be part of the Philippine delegation to the oral arguments.

Joining them are high-ranking officials from the executive, legislative and judicial departments, Jose said without naming the officials.

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Malacañang has not released the list of officials on the Philippine delegation, but the Inquirer learned on Thursday that besides Hilbay and Del Rosario, the team would also include Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa Jr., 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.

Supreme Court Justices Antonio Carpio and Francis Jardeleza and Sandiganbayan Justice Sarah Jane Fernandez are also joining the team that leaves for The Hague this weekend.

Senate President Franklin Drilon and House Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. are also members of the team.

Drilon is in San Francisco and reportedly won’t be able to join the group in time for the opening of the oral arguments.

Inquirer report confirmed

Valte, deputy presidential spokesperson, confirmed the composition of the Philippine delegation as reported by the Inquirer.

She said Ochoa had already left for Amsterdam for a meeting with the Philippines’ lawyers.

According to Valte, the top-level delegation showed a national effort in the Philippine defense of its sovereignty in the West Philippine Sea.

She said President Aquino had instructed Ochoa to ensure that the Philippine case would be well presented before the UN tribunal.

Hilbay will argue the Philippine case. He will be assisted by an American lawyer retained by the Philippine government, Paul Reichler of Foley and Hoag LLP.

Valte said most of the members of the Philippine delegation had something to contribute to the discussions in court.

“These people have been part of the discussions on the dispute involving the West Philippine Sea, and they would also like to see the progress of our complaint . . . before the tribunal,” she said.

China not taking part

China has refused to take part in the proceedings, claiming it has “undisputed sovereignty” over the South China Sea.

The Philippines is protesting China’s seizure of Panatag Shoal (Scarborough Shoal), a rich fishing ground off Zambales province, in 2012 and encroachment on reefs in the Spratly archipelago within the West Philippine Sea, South China Sea waters within Manila’s 370-kilometer exclusive economic zone recognized under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos).

China has blockaded Panatag Shoal and is building artificial islands at seven Philippine-claimed reefs in the Spratlys—Kagitingan (international name: Fiery Cross), Calderon (Cuarteron), Burgos (Gaven), Mabini (Johnson South), Panganiban (Mischief), Zamora (Subi) and McKeenan (Hughes).

‘Political provocation’

Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying has called the Philippine case a “political provocation.”

Valte said Hua’s statement was expected.

“It supports [China’s] position not to [take part in the arbitration],” she said. “[F]iling the case [in] the arbitral tribunal is in line with our commitment to resolve the dispute peacefully.”

Yesterday, China’s foreign ministry expressed anger at the latest US National Military Strategy that slammed Chinese island-building in the Spratlys and said Beijing’s actions were “adding tension to the Asia-Pacific region.”

“We express dissatisfaction and opposition toward the US side’s report’s irrational exaggerations of China’s threat,” Hua told reporters.

“We have already clearly explained our stance on the issue of construction on islands and reefs in the South China Sea several times,” she said.

 

‘Cold War’ mentality

“We believe that the US should abandon their Cold War mentality,” she added.

China claims 90 percent of the 3.5-million-square-kilometer South China Sea, through which $5 trillion in shipborne trade passes every year and where islets, reefs and atolls are believed to be sitting atop vast oil and gas reserves.

Besides the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan also claim parts of the South China Sea. With reports from Matthew Reysio-Cruz, trainee

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TAGS: Department of Foreign Affairs, South China Sea, territorial dispute, The Hague, United Nations, West Philippine Sea
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