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Last updated: March 31, 2014 7:03 am
China has criticised the Philippines for forging ahead with an unprecedented international arbitration claim against Beijing over contested waters in the South China Sea.
Manila on Sunday submitted a pleading to the body that arbitrates maritime disputes under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos). The so-called “memorial” urges the tribunal to invalidate the “nine-dash line” that China includes on maps to justify its claim to almost the entire South China Sea.
Beijing responded to the move by calling on the Philippines to engage in direct talks over the disputed islands and reefs in the South China Sea.
“No matter how the Philippine memorial is packaged, the direct cause of the dispute between China and the Philippines is the latter’s illegal occupation of some of China’s islands and reefs in the South China Sea,” said the Chinese foreign ministry.
The Philippines and China are both signatories to Unclos, which spells out the maritime rights of states, and the means for settling disputes over overlapping sea claims. But China has refused to participate in the case, which will be heard by a five-judge tribunal in The Hague, saying it was “unilaterally initiated” by Manila.
The Chinese foreign ministry said the dispute with the Philippines was “excluded from arbitration” because of a declaration made by China when it ratified Unclos in 2006.
“China’s rejection of the Philippines’ submission for arbitration is solidly based on international law, and China’s lawful rights as a party to Unclos should be truly respected.”
China is involved in maritime disputes with several neighbours, but the Philippines and Japan have been the most aggressive in challenging its claims. In February, Benigno Aquino, the Philippines president, compared China’s increasingly assertive stance in the South China Sea to Hitler’s push for Czechoslovakian land in 1938.
The Sino-Filipino dispute comes as China and the US vie for power in the Pacific. China is rapidly expanding its maritime capabilities as the US continues its “pivot” to Asia. Ahead of President Barack Obama’s visit to the Philippines in April, Washington and Manila are trying to finalise a deal that would allow the US to base ships and troops in the southeast Asian nation on a rotational basis.
In announcing the submission of the almost 4,000-page memorial, Albert Del Rosario, the Philippines foreign secretary, said it was unclear how China would respond.
Latest news and comment on the escalating disputes over islands and territorial waters between China and its neighbours
“Ordinarily, the next step in an arbitration of this nature would be the filing of a counter-memorial by the other party,” said Mr Del Rosario. “However, it is currently unknown whether China will appear in the case, or whether it will continue its present policy of abstaining from the proceedings.”
Manila argues that the tribunal should invalidate the “nine-dash line” because it stretches to just 30-50 miles from the Philippines, cutting off the southeast Asian country’s 200-mile exclusive economic zone and continental shelf, in violation of Unclos. Manila says it would lose 80 per cent of its EEZ in waters off the western Philippines, including areas containing huge oil and gas deposits, if it accepted the line.
The Philippines is also trying to stop China from occupying or blocking access by Philippine boats and fishermen to eight so-called “submerged features” that lie within its EEZ, including Scarborough Shoal where Chinese and Philippine maritime vessels figured in a two-month stand-off in the middle of 2012.
Manila says the shoal, a rich fishing ground that has in effect been controlled by China since the Philippines withdrew its ships to end the impasse, is located about 120 miles west of the Philippines coast but lies more than 350 miles from China.
No matter how the Philippine memorial is packaged, the direct cause of the dispute between China and the Philippines is the latter’s illegal occupation of some of China’s islands and reefs in the South China Sea
- China foreign ministry
Antonio Carpio, a Philippines supreme court judge, said Manila is not asking the tribunal to determine the ownership of the disputed rocks, shoals or reefs, but only to clarify if the mostly submerged features are entitled to their own maritime zones.
“The Philippines is asking the tribunal if China’s nine-dashed lines can negate the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone as guaranteed under Unclos,” he said in a speech in February. “The Philippines is also asking the tribunal if certain rocks above water at high tide, like Scarborough Shoal, generate a 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone or only a 12-nautical mile territorial sea.”
The move to file a “memorial” paves the way for formal deliberations by the tribunal on whether it has jurisdiction and on the substantive issues. It marks the first time that China’s “nine-dash line” will be subjected to intense international scrutiny by some of the world’s foremost international law experts.
In February, the Philippines welcomed the move by the US to weigh in on the “nine-dash” line for the first time. Danny Russel, the top US diplomat for east Asia, told the US Congress that “the international community would welcome China to clarify or adjust its ‘nine-dash’ line claim to bring it in accordance with the international law of the sea”.
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