Manila to tackle sea row 'with or without China' at UN

Arbitration looms under UN convention to settle territorial dispute over Beijing's 'nine-dash line'

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 21 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 21 February, 2013, 9:37am

The Philippines is about to wade into unchartered waters in its relations with China over the South China Sea.

Once China ignores - as expected - a 30-day deadline expiring today to appoint its own UN arbitrator to handle a legal challenge from the Philippines over its controversial claims, Manila will be free to push ahead without China's consent in a rare move.

A Foreign Ministry statement this week made clear that Beijing had no interest in dignifying Manila's move, dismissed by some mainland analysts as a stunt.

China's envoy in Manila, Ma Keqing , met Filipino officials on Tuesday, formally rejecting Manila's Statement and Notification of Claim to challenge China's "nine-dash line" under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. A spokesman said Manila's move was "legally flawed" and had violated the consensus stipulated in Asean's 2002 declaration on the South China Sea.

"China resolutely opposes Manila's move," the spokesman said. "Philippines should not take any measures that will complicate the matter."

The Philippines, however, seems determined to do just that - a situation now being closely watched by an anxious region.

China's refusal to pick its own representative to a five-judge panel will not stop the Philippines from having the case heard, nor will it give Beijing a legal right to ignore any future ruling it does not like, according to lawyers and scholars. Effective enforcement would be another matter.

A statement from the Philippines' Foreign Ministry insisted that the panel would be formed "with or without China".

"The Philippines remains committed to Arbitration which is a friendly, peaceful and durable form of dispute settlement that should be welcomed by all."

According to procedures under the convention which China signed, Manila now has two weeks to petition the president of the International Tribunal of the Law of the Sea to appoint a judge to represent China. The president of the Hamburg-based body is former Japanese diplomat Shunji Yanai, while China has one judge on the tribunal, Zhiguo Gao. Manila has selected a German judge, Rudiger Wolfrum.

Similar procedures exist if the two sides cannot agree on the other three panel members. Once the panel convenes, its first order of business will be to decide whether it wants to take the case, which could take three to four years to settle.

Dr Ian Storey, who studies South China Sea issues at Singapore's Institute of South East Asian Studies, said it remained to be seen whether China's effective withdrawal from the case would affect any panel decision on whether to push ahead.

"Certainly the Philippines must have anticipated the risk of China not participating and is still determined to drive this forward. Whatever happens from here, it will add to the pressure on China to clarify its claims, both what the nine-dash line really means and the legal and historical justifications for it."


Additional reporting by Teddy Ng