A UNITED Nations tribunal has been convened in the Netherlands to look into a complaint filed by the Philippines to question the legality of China’s massive territorial claim in the resource-rich South China Sea.
The progress in the Philippines’s legal challenge against China comes amid increasing animosity between the two Asian neighbors due to their long-standing territorial conflict.
Manila and Beijing recently traded diplomatic barbs over the Philippines’ decision to seek international arbitration – the latest manifestation of longstanding territorial feud between the two countries over South China Sea territories that have reignited in recent years by tense confrontations between Chinese and Philippine vessels in two disputed shoals – Scarborough and Ayungin – off Manila’s western coasts.
At their first meeting on July 11, the President and members of the tribunal designated The Hague in Netherlands as the seat of the arbitration and the Permanent Court of Arbitration as the Registry for the proceedings, the Department of Foreign Affairs said.
“The Philippine government is pleased that the Arbitral Tribunal is now formally constituted, and that the arbitration process has begun,” Foreign Affairs spokesman Raul Hernandez told a press briefing.
Part of the process is to determine if Manila’s case has legal merit and if the tribunal has jurisdiction over it.“Whether they have decided jurisdiction, they will publicly announce this,” Hernandez said.
In the meantime, Manila pledged its “fullest cooperation” with the tribunal “in order to assure a fair, impartial and efficient process that produces a final and binding judgment in conformity with international law.”
The Philippines sought arbitration under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) last January to try to declare as “illegal” China’s nine-dash claim, which covers almost all of the South China Sea or also known as the West Philippine Sea.
China has resisted Manila’s move to let a U.N. body intervene in the disputes, saying the Philippines’ case was legally infirm and carried unacceptable allegations.
China prefers to negotiate one on one with other claimants which would give it advantage because of its sheer size compared to rival claimants which are smaller and have less military force.
The South China Sea – a strategic waterway where a bulk of the world’s trade pass – had been a source of conflict among competing claimants the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, China and Taiwan.
The vast waters is dotted with islands, reefs, cays, shoals and rock formations and is believed to be rich in natural gas and oil deposits.
Analysts feared the competing claims could spark a military conflict in the region.
Tensions in the area spiked anew last year after the Philippines and Vietnam separately accused China of fresh incursions in areas they say fall within their sovereign waters.
Also at the July 11 meeting, the arbitral tribunal approved a draft set of Rules of Procedure to govern the proceedings, and sent it to the Philippines and China for their comments, which were requested by 5 August 2013.
This request also called for the parties to propose a schedule for the submission of their written pleadings.
With or without China’s participation, the proceedings will carry on, Hernandez said.
The Philippine government and its counsel, Paul Reichler of Foley and Hoag, are now studying the draft Rules of Procedure, and will submit comments and a proposed schedule for the written pleadings as requested by the tribunal, Hernandez said.
The DFA, he added, will issue statements from time to time to keep the public informed about the progress of the arbitration.
Information will also be made available to the public on the website of the Permanent Court of Arbitration www.pca-cpa.org. PNA