MANILA, PHILIPPINES - The Philippines is cautiously welcoming an international arbitration court's announcement that it will accept Manila's complaint about China's expanded activities in the South China Sea.
The Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague said it will take on seven of the 15 complaints the Philippines filed about China's claim of exclusive sovereign rights, territorial waters and an exclusive economic zone. China has rejected the case ever since the Philippines raised it in January 2013, on the grounds that questions of sovereignty and maritime borders lie outside the court's jurisdiction.
The court set aside seven other issues that the Philippines raised and asked for further details about another of the 15 charges.
A government foreign affairs spokesman in Manila, Charles Jose, said Philippine authorities hope to persuade the court that it has full authority to decide the validity of China’s assertion that the artificial islands it is building in contested waters are sovereign Chinese territory.
"We are cautiously confident because they said [that] there are seven other issues [and] that they will consider the jurisdictional issue in tandem with the merits. So I think they will also find jurisdiction in those claims," Jose said.
Manila claims that Beijing illegally interfered with the Philippines' sovereign rights by extending its offshore exclusive economic zone and territorial waters.
The tribunal said Thursday it is not trying to determine ownership and borders, but is instead looking at the disputed features that China is developing in the sea.
Over the past two years, China has dredged up more than 1,200 hectares of sand from the sea bottom to enlarge seven rocky outcroppings that appear naturally above the surface only at low tide – "reclaiming" them as islands, the Chinese contend.
The Philippines is pressing the court to determine whether these are simply rocks or islands, which would affect the question of territorial rights.
China holds firm
A high-ranking Chinese foreign ministry official said Friday that China has not changed its position, asserting that its sovereignty "would not be undermined." Vice Minister Liu Zhenmin said China will not participate in the arbitration.
A Manila-based maritime security analyst, Rommel Banlaoi, said that China's dredging activities have completely changed the character of what were once tidal rocks and that the court could very well recognize the Philippines has maritime entitlements in the area.
“But if you have conflict with China over those maritime claims, then it’s up to the parties concerned to look for possible measures or mechanisms on how to settle their differences in those areas,” Banlaoi said.
The court has set a closed-door hearing on the merits of the issues it is willing to adjudicate, and also to review its decision on the other issues the Philippines raised. No final ruling in the case is expected before next year.