Manila is determined to pursue arbitration through the United Nations in the dispute over maritime territory in the South China Sea because it is "the last resort", the Philippine foreign minister said yesterday.
China formally rejected the UN arbitration on February 19. A Chinese diplomat had told the South China Morning Post that Manila was making a mistake by resorting to arbitration because "we are not afraid of UNCLOS (the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas). Manila underestimates our knowledge at its peril."
Yesterday, Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said during a media briefing: "As far as we are concerned, the train has left the station. Either China is on board or they are not. But as I said [of] the compulsory arbitration, the word will come down whether China is there [or not]."
However, even as the arbitration continues, he left the door open for an alternative resolution. "I think, yes, we will entertain bilateral discussions," Del Rosario said.
He disclosed that one of the "immediate reasons" for going to the UN was China's continued incursions in disputed territorial waters. "Based on our last intelligence report, there are now five Chinese vessels - four maritime vessels and one fisheries enforcement vessel" off Bajo de Masinloc, otherwise known as Scarborough Shoal and which China calls Huangyan Island, he said.
Del Rosario noted that bilateral consultations on the conflict had been going on for 18 years. In addition, since the tense stand-off over Scarborough Shoal began a year ago, "we actually had 45 bilateral consultations with China, again to no avail. And so for us, the arbitral tribunal under UNCLOS was the last resort in terms of seeking a peaceful resolution to this dispute", he said.
He noted that the UN tribunal was fully constituted on April 24, with a Sri Lankan judge appointed president of the arbitration panel,and French, German, Dutch and Polish judges as members. "They are organising themselves and establishing rules on how to move forward. They will be looking at whether the tribunal has jurisdiction over the case. They will be ready to judge the merits of our case," he said. He estimated arbitration could last between two and four years.
The Philippines, Japan and Vietnam have been talking to each other over their overlapping claims with China, Del Rosario confirmed. "I think both countries - Japan and Vietnam - are very concerned about maritime security. So I think we have co-operation in terms of dialogue on how maritime security can be achieved; how freedom of navigation and unimpeded commerce can be guaranteed. These are discussions we have on a regular basis."
As for how the Philippine government views the new Chinese leadership and the way its envoys deal with Manila, Del Rosario said: "Our view is that we are looking for the normalisation of our relations with China … and in the process we are trying to come up with a peaceful resolution of the maritime disputes."