Despite the presence of a high-level Philippine team at the hearing of the Philippines’ case against China before the Arbitral Tribunal of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos) this week, the issue of who owns the contested islands in the South China Sea (West Philippine Sea) will remain unresolved.
That’s because the Philippine team won’t be arguing its territorial claims, which are not under the jurisdiction of the Arbitral Tribunal in The Hague in the Netherlands.
“We are very confident that we can convince the court that this is not about ownership of land,” said former Solicitor General now Supreme Court Justice Francis Jardeleza, who is part of the Philippine team.
Instead, the Philippines merely wants the tribunal, which interprets Unclos, to invalidate China’s 9-dash line claim over the South China Sea.
Territorial claims are the jurisdiction of another body, the International Court of Justice, and the ICJ only entertains cases if all parties in the dispute participate. China has refused to do so.
But although the Philippines is not arguing about who owns what in the South China Sea, its arguments have been misconstrued as such.
Jardeleza, in fact, said, “For example, we’re not asking the court to say who owns Panatag Shoal. We are arguing that they are within our EEZ [exclusive economic zone]and therefore under the rules of Unclos we have exclusive rights to fish within that area.”
It is this posturing by the Philippines that China calls sly and cunning. Although saying it is not making a territorial claim before the tribunal, the Philippines’ words practically establish ownership of islands and areas, the Chinese government said.
In its position paper submitted in December 2014, China said, “The Philippines has cunningly packaged its case in the present form.”
“This contrived packaging, however, fails to conceal the very essence of the subject-matter of the arbitration, namely, the territorial sovereignty over certain maritime features in the South China Sea,” China’s position paper adds.
A day before scheduled oral arguments, the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) on Monday reiterated its call on China to join them in finding a rules-based resolution to the dispute.
“This issue has to be settled by [the]six claimaint countries, including China. Based on the decision of the arbitral, then it will be clear on how we can go with this issue,” DFA spokesman Charles Jose said.
The oral arguments will begin on Tuesday, July 7, and will last until July 13.
Jose said the oral arguments that intend to hear merits on whether the tribunal has jurisdiction on the case will push through “even without China’s participation.”
He added that the department does not expect the tribunal to hand down the decision anytime soon.
“It may take a couple of months,” Jose said.
According to the DFA spokesman, they would be relying on the international community to encourage China to respect the ruling.
If China wanted the respect of the international community as an emerging superpower, it would bid the UN ruling, Jose said.
The Philippines’ case against China hinges on the decision of the tribunal’s jurisdiction but the department is hopeful it will get a favorable ruling.
“That to us is a fundamental first step toward a peaceful and rules-based approach toward resolving the overlapping maritime claims in the South China Sea, “ Jose said.
With BERNICE CAMILLE V. BAUZON