News / Asia

Philippines to Forge Ahead with Sea Dispute Arbitration

South China Sea Territorial Claims
South China Sea Territorial Claims
Simone Orendain
The Philippines says it will continue to pursue international arbitration in its territorial dispute in the South China Sea with China, despite Beijing's rejection. Philippine authorities say they do not need China's consent to take the issue to the United Nations.

Officials with the Philippines Department of Foreign Affairs say the 1982 U.N. treaty that both countries signed allows Manila to go into arbitration alone. DFA Ocean Concerns Assistant Secretary Gilberto Asuque says international arbitration under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), is compulsory.

“The process has started. It cannot be disrupted.  The actions of China cannot interfere with the completion of the process because there is nothing in UNCLOS that says you can disrupt or interfere with the process," said  Asuque.

The Philippine arbitration filing says China violates the UNCLOS-designation of a country’s exclusive economic zone, which is 370 kilometers from its coastline. It also calls China’s centuries-old claim to practically the entire South China Sea illegal.

It also calls China’s centuries-old claim to practically the entire South China Sea illegal.

On Tuesday, China’s ambassador to Manila sent the notice of the arbitration back to the Philippines. Then at a news briefing, Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hong Lei said the filing was “factually flawed.” He also says it goes against the non-binding agreement between the 10 member-states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and China to settle sea-related disputes among themselves.

He says The Philippines' actions make numerous historical and legal errors, including false criticism of China. He says China cannot accept it.

Futile filing?

But how would one-party arbitration work, exactly? Professor Myron Nordquist of the Center for Oceans Law and Policy at the University of Virginia calls the situation “quite bizarre.”

“For one thing, it is doomed to failure because if the party won’t consent to the arbitration there is then no enforcement," said Nordquist. "How would they expect a country that didn’t want to have a dispute settled by third parties to feel in any sense bound by a decision where they didn’t even participate?”

However, Nordquist says the filing is not entirely futile, especially because Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei also have claims in the resource-rich sea.

“It’s accomplishing one of its purposes, which is to bring attention to this and politically to give the Filipino government the argument that ‘Hey, we tried to solve this peacefully and you wouldn’t play,'" he said.

In recent years, the Philippines’ list of diplomatic protests of alleged intrusions by China into its exclusive economic zone has grown. And, it continues to try to forge diplomatic alliances in the region to strengthen its case. The militarily weak country has also renewed ties to its Mutual Defense Treaty ally, the United States, which is closely watching developments in the area.

US concerns

U.S. Naval intelligence officer Captain James Fanell of the Pacific Fleet gave a blunt assessment last month of China’s increasing activities in east and southeast Asian waters.

Fanell spoke at a defense conference in California. He calls China’s marine surveillance operation a “full-time maritime sovereignty harassment organization.”

He says you do not see incidents or controversies around the platform off the Chinese coast.  Therefore, he likens China's position to "What's mine is mine and we'll negotiate what's yours," he said.

Fanell says the United States remains neutral in territorial disputes and that China needs to be a guarantor of East Asian maritime security.

China has consistently opposed any move by the Philippines to internationalize its grievances, while frequently saying that they both should work, one-on-one, toward peace and stability in the region.

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