Philippines has taken China to a UN tribunal to challenge its claim to most of the South China Sea, including territory belonging to the archipelago, Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said on Tuesday.
Del Rosario told reporters that Manila had referred Beijing to an arbitration panel under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea – a 1982 treaty signed by both countries – and would ask it to declare Chinese claims in the area invalid.
“The Philippines has exhausted almost all political and diplomatic avenues for a peaceful negotiated settlement of its maritime dispute with China,” he said.
“On numerous occasions, dating back to 1995, the Philippines has been exchanging views with China to peacefully settle these disputes. To this day, a solution is still elusive.
“We hope that the arbitral proceedings shall bring this dispute to a durable solution.”
China’s territorial claims overlap those of the Philippines as well as Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan.
Over the past two years the Philippines and Vietnam have complained at China’s increasing assertiveness in enforcing those claims, particularly around areas believed rich in oil and natural gas reserves.
Manila says the Chinese stance led to a stand-off last year with the Philippines over rich fishing grounds around the Scarborough Shoal, a formation much closer to the Philippine coast than to China’s shores.
The Philippines in its submission says Beijing’s so-called “nine-dash line” outlining its territorial claims over most of the sea, including waters and islands close to its neighbours, is illegal, according to del Rosario.
It also demands that China “desist from unlawful activities that violate the sovereign rights and jurisdiction of the Philippines under the 1982 UNCLOS”, he added.
A briefing paper provided by the foreign department alleged that within the nine-dash line, “China has also laid claim to, occupied and built structures on certain submerged banks, reefs and low tide elevations that do not qualify as islands under UNCLOS, but are parts of the Philippine continental shelf, or the international seabed”.
China swiftly dismissed the submission with Ambassador Ma Keqing repeating her country’s stance to an official in the Philippines foreign office.
“Ambassador Ma reiterated the principled position of the Chinese side, and stressed that China has indisputable sovereignty over the islands in the South China Sea and its adjacent waters,” a Chinese embassy statement said.
“The Chinese side strongly holds the disputes on the South China Sea should be settled by parties concerned through negotiations,” it added.
UNCLOS generally requires both parties to undergo arbitration and it was unclear if and when the UN would act given China’s stance. However a source told reporters there were examples where cases had been heard with only one side present.
Rene de Castro, a political science professor at Manila’s De La Salle University, said the Philippines’ submission was a last throw of the dice and unlikely to force Beijing’s hand.
“I don’t think China will bite the bait. It has been consistent with its position that territorial disputes ought to be solved bilaterally,” de Castro told reporters.
“We have exhausted all our options and we’re scraping the barrel really.”