On Sunday, The Philippines submitted supporting documents to an international tribunal in The Hague in its case against China over competing South China Sea claims.
Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario said the country’s legal team put together 10 volumes that amounted to nearly 4,000 pages of material to support the merits of its case. He said the submission, called a “memorial,” is in the Philippines’ national interest and is about “defending what is legitimately” theirs.
“It is about securing our children’s future. It is about guaranteeing freedom of navigation for all nations. It is about helping to preserve regional peace, security and stability. And finally, it is about seeking not just any kind of resolution but a just and durable solution grounded [in] international law,” he said.
In January last year, the Philippines took its grievances to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea over what it calls China’s “excessive claims” in the South China Sea. The Philippines questions whether there is any legal basis for China’s claim of ownership over more than 70 percent of the sea. It is also seeking reassurance that features it says are part of its continental shelf and well within its 370-kilometer exclusive economic zone, as defined by international law, cannot be claimed by anyone else.
These shoals, reefs and atolls in the heavily travelled sea sit atop abundant fishing grounds and potentially vast hydrocarbon resources.
China does not recognize international arbitration and has not responded to the case. It bases its claim on ancient maps and says it has “indisputable sovereignty over South China Sea Islands and their adjacent waters.” Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam also have partial or entire claims in the sea.
Security analyst Rommel Banlaoi heads the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research in Manila. He said the case could open the floodgates. “Many, many claimants are considering the possibility of arbitration, but they are not ready yet. They are watching [where] the developments of Philippine arbitration would lead,” he stated.
Banlaoi said there is also the possibility that if the tribunal finds in favor of the Philippines, China would simply opt out of being a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. And he said even with the case filed, China will continue increased policing of the waters to assert its claims.
In 1995, China put up structures on Mischief Reef, which is about 200 kilometers west of Palawan Province and claimed by the Philippines. For nearly two years, Chinese surveillance ships have kept local fishermen out of Scarborough Shoal, 225 kilometers west of Zambales province, which was the site of tense standoff between ships from the two countries in 2012.
Earlier this month, Chinese surveillance ships blocked a Philippine vessel trying to send provisions to an installation at Second Thomas Shoal. The facility is a grounded Philippine ship where some military personnel are stationed. Then just Saturday, two Chinese civilian ships tried again to stop a provision ship carrying some journalists from entering the same shoal, also west of Palawan.
The arbitration tribunal will next have to determine whether it has jurisdiction over the case. Philippine officials say their submission demonstrates that it does.