Philippines seeks international help in its maritime dispute with China

Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario.Picture: Reuters
Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario.Picture: Reuters
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THE Philippines has taken a bold legal step against China’s claims to virtually the entire South China Sea, formally notifying the Asian superpower that Manila is seeking international arbitration to declare Beijing’s moves in the potentially oil-rich waters “unlawful”.

Foreign secretary Albert del Rosario yesterday said his department summoned Chinese ambassador Ma Keqing and handed her a note notifying the Chinese government that the Philippines is bringing the countries’ conflicting claims to a tribunal operating under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. It wants the panel to declare Beijing’s moves in the potentially oil-rich waters unlawful.

Mr del Rosario said: “The Philippines has exhausted almost all political and diplomatic avenues for a peaceful negotiated settlement of its maritime disputes with China. To this day, a solution is still elusive.”

Six governments have overlapping claims across the vast South China Sea, with China claiming sovereignty over virtually all of it. Chinese military ships confronted Philippine vessels last year in a stand-off over a shoal that both countries claim.

There are fears that territorial conflicts in the region, including a dispute between Japan and China in the East China Sea, could spark armed conflict.

Chinese embassy spokesman Zhang Hua said Ms Ma responded by reiterating that “China has indisputable sovereignty over the islands in the South China Sea and its adjacent waters” and stressing that the disputes should be settled by the rival claimants through one-on-one negotiations.

China, the Philippines’ third-largest trading partner, has regularly and vociferously opposed attempts to involve third parties or world bodies in the South China Sea disputes, fearing that would weaken its hand.

The Philippines hopes that arbitration through an international tribunal would lead to a ruling that China’s sprawling claims violate the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. China and the Philippines are among more than 160 countries that have ratified the accord, which aims to govern the use of offshore areas and sets territorial limits for coastal states.

Mr del Rosario said the Philippines hopes the tribunal will order China to “desist from activities that violate the rights of the Philippines in its maritime domain”.

But even if a tribunal rules against China, Beijing could choose to ignore the ruling.

Chen Shaofeng, an international affairs expert at Peking University, said no arbitration should proceed unless both parties approve it.

He said it is unlikely that Beijing would agree to such a process, or accept the results of a tribunal it did not recognise.

“There is no precedent in Chinese history of China allowing international arbitration on territorial disputes, no matter over land or waters,” Mr Chen said. “The Philippines knows its proposal for arbitration will get nowhere in the end, but it just wants to make the issue more internationalised.”

Philippine diplomats, however, argue that the arbitration can proceed even without China’s involvement.

Mr del Rosario’s office said in a statement that Philippine leaders are “all for improving our economic relations with China, but it should not be at the expense of surrendering our national sovereignty,” adding that it hopes Manila’s action will not have an adverse effect on trade between the countries.