MANILA - Last week an international panel opened long-anticipated hearings into the territorial dispute in the South China Sea between China and the Philippines. Beijing has refused to engage with the process, but it’s still going forward and Philippines officials say they are optimistic about their case arguing that international law allows them rights to exploit reefs, islands and shoals in their economic waters.
Resolving the dispute
The tribunal’s five judges have two key questions to decide. First is whether it has jurisdiction to resolve the dispute. If it does, it will then decide on Manila’s case to declare invalid China’s so-called “nine-dash line,” which Beijing uses to show its territorial claims.
After last week’s proceedings, the panel in The Hague has asked both Beijing and Manila for more information. Philippine Foreign Affairs spokesman Charles Jose said the judges are “being thorough.” “We have prepared hard for this, for the arbitration case since the beginning,” he said. “And well, we are cautiously optimistic and of course we believe that the tribunal has jurisdiction over the case.”
The Philippines argued that the tribunal is given the authority to determine Manila’s entitlements within its exclusive economic zone in accordance with the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which both countries have signed.
China argued the case is instead about determining national sovereignty, which is beyond the tribunal’s purview.
Even though Beijing is not directly participating in the proceedings, the arbitration panel has said it is taking into consideration any and all communications from China including a position paper it released in December last year. China has until August 17th to submit a written response.
“The Court is exercising due diligence in handling the case because this is the first time the Court experiences this kind of case and its decision would have tremendous implications for the world and not only for the Philippines,” said Rommel Banlaoi, executive director of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research.
During a regular briefing Tuesday, China’s foreign ministry spokeswoman said the Philippines must instead resolve the disputes “through negotiation and consultation” with Beijing.
This is the first time disputes in the South China Sea are being addressed by an international body, and it comes at a time when China has rapidly built up artificial islands on some rocky outcroppings that could be used for military defense.
The arbitral tribunal said it expects to rule on the question of jurisdiction and admissibility before the end of the year.
Manila said Beijing’s claims to about 80 percent of the resource rich sea are “excessive.” But Beijing said it has “indisputable sovereignty” over the sea’s islands based on historical data.
Manila is preparing written responses to submit by July 23rd to questions raised by the tribunal during the hearing.