THE Philippines won the first round of its legal battle against China after the arbitration tribunal in The Hague declared that it had jurisdiction over the case.
In its Oct. 29 ruling, the Permanent Court of Arbitration unanimously resolved the issue of jurisdiction over the case in favor of the Philippines, as it rejected China’s stand invoking its sovereignty.
The Philippines welcomed the PCA ruling and immediately made preparations for the hearing of the case on its merits before the international tribunal.
Solicitor General Florin Hilbay, who represented the country before the PCA in July, said the tribunal’s ruling was a favorable action as it upheld the Philippines’ position on the issues of jurisdiction and admissibility.
“The decision represents a significant step forward in the Philippines’ quest for a peaceful, impartial resolution of the disputes between the parties and the clarification of their rights under UNCLOS [United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas],” Hilbay said in a statement.
“The elimination of preliminary objections to the exercise of the tribunal’s jurisdiction opens the way for the presentation of the merits of the Philippines’ substantive claims,” Hilbay added.
The chief state lawyer believed that because of the ruling, the PCA would now proceed to hear the case based on merits.
Members of the Philippine legal team are set to again fly to Hague in the Netherlands for another round of oral arguments, which have been tentatively set on Nov. 24 to 30.
Based on previous cases, Hilbay said, the tribunal usually resolves cases six months after presentation on the merits.
The Philippines filed the case against China before the arbitral tribunal in January 2013, challenging the legality of the latter’s nine-dash line claim over nearly the entire South China Sea, including areas included in the Philippines’ 200-mile exclusive economic zone.
Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio earlier suggested that the country may seek relief from the PCA to stop the reclamation of China at the West Philippine Sea as a “provisional measure.”
China has created about 2,000 acres of reclaimed land on seven reefs—Subi Reef, Gaven Reef, Mischief Reef, Johnson Reef, Fiery Cross Reef, Chigua Reef and Calderon Reef. Reports say that from reclamation, it has transitioned into infrastructure development insisting that its activity is on their island and on their own waters.
Carpio said only the Philippines can put up structures and artificial islands in the disputed reefs, particularly the Subi Reef, citing Article 60 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, in an exclusive economic zone.
The magistrate said China’s reclamation cannot be justified under the UNCLOS because its actions under Article 87 about Freedom of the high seas “only applies to international seas beyond EEZs (exclusive economic zones).”
China has refused to participate in the proceedings or recognize the court’s jurisdiction.
The disputed waters—claimed in part by Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Brunei—have also become the stage for a tussle for regional dominance between Beijing and Washington, the world’s two largest economic and military powers.
Following a stand-off between Chinese ships and the weak Philippine Navy in 2012, China took control of a rich fishing ground called Scarborough Shoal that is within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.
China has also undertaken giant reclamation activities, raising fears it will use artificial islands to build new military outposts close to the Philippines and other claimants.
The tribunal—set up in 1899 to resolve international disputes between countries -- stressed Thursday its ruling did not yet go to the heart of the merits of Manila’s case, which was first filed in 2013.
A new hearing will now be held behind closed doors in The Hague, and a final ruling is not expected until next year.
The tribunal agreed it would take up seven of the 15 submissions made by Manila, in particular whether Scarborough Shoal and low-tide areas like Mischief Reef can be considered islands, as China contends.
It will also mull whether China has interfered with Philippine fishing activities at Scarborough Shoal.
But it set aside seven more pointed claims, mainly accusing Beijing of acting unlawfully, to be considered at the next hearing on the actual merits of Manila’s case.
In a July hearing in The Hague, Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario warned the integrity of UN maritime laws was at stake.
China’s behavior had become increasingly “aggressive” and negotiations had proved futile, Del Rosario said.
But the court on Thursday also directed Manila to narrow the scope of its final request that it should order that “China shall desist from further unlawful claims and activities.”
In Washington, a senior US defense official hailed the tribunal’s decision as victory for international law.
“We of course welcome the decision of the panel. This demonstrates the relevance of international law to the territorial conflicts in the South China Sea,” the defense official said.With AFP, Sandy Araneta
“It demonstrates that sovereign claims are not necessarily indisputable and it shows that judging issues like this on the basis of international law and international practice are a viable way of at a minimum managing territorial conflicts, if not resolving them. We strongly welcome the activities of the panel.”
China has said it will not abide by any ruling. But the Philippines hopes a judgement in its favor will pressure China into making concessions.
The tribunal said Thursday’s ruling establishing its competence in the affair had been “unanimous” among the panel of five judges.
And it stressed the ruling “concerns only whether the tribunal has jurisdiction to consider the Philippines’ claims and whether such claims are admissible.”
China said Friday it will disregard any findings by the international tribunal.
“We will not participate and we will not accept the arbitration,” Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin told reporters in Beijing.
“The ruling or the result of arbitration will not affect China’s position,” he added.
“It won’t affect China’s sovereignty rights and jurisdiction in the South China Sea, our rights will not be undermined.”
As veto-wielding permanent member of the UN Security Council, the stance will put Beijing in a difficult diplomatic position if the court rules that it has violated one of the UN’s own statutes.
Beijing insists it has sovereign rights to nearly all of the South China Sea, a strategic waterway through which about a third of all the world’s traded oil passes.
This week, the American USS Lassen guided missile destroyer sailed within 12 nautical miles of at least one of the land formations claimed by China, sparking fury in Beijing.
China’s navy chief warned his US counterpart encounters between their forces could spiral into conflict, state media reported, two days after the USS Lassen’s voyage.
The comments by Admiral Wu Shengli, who commands the Chinese navy, were made in a video call with US Admiral John Richardson that lasted about an hour, Beijing’s official Xinhua news agency said Friday.
Chinese authorities monitored and warned away the USS Lassen, but did not otherwise intervene, although Beijing later summoned the US ambassador and denounced what it called a threat to its sovereignty.
“If the US continues to carry out these kinds of dangerous, provocative acts, there could be a serious situation between frontline forces from both sides on the sea and in the air, or even a minor incident that could spark conflict,” Xinhua paraphrased Wu as saying.
“I hope the US cherishes the hard-won, good situation between the Chinese and US navies and avoids similar incidents from happening again,” Wu added.
The Palace welcomed the court decision Friday.
“The ruling on jurisdiction paves the way for the furtherance of the proceedings to evaluate the merits of the position. We will await further advice from the tribunal,” said Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma Jr.
Coloma also played down China’s refusal to recognized the court.
“Our basic position is to promote the freedom of navigation recognizing that the South China Sea or the West Philippine Sea is one of the most important arteries for global commerce,” Coloma said.
“We have always maintained that all disputes pertaining to maritime entitlements in body of water will have to be resolved peacefully in accordance with the rules such as those contained in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea,” he added. –
COMMENT DISCLAIMER: Reader comments posted on this Web site are not in any way endorsed by Manila Standard. Comments are views by manilastandard.net readers who exercise their right to free expression and they do not necessarily represent or reflect the position or viewpoint of manilastandard.net. While reserving this publication’s right to delete comments that are deemed offensive, indecent or inconsistent with Manila Standard editorial standards, Manila Standard may not be held liable for any false information posted by readers in this comments section.