The Philippines has filed a case in the UN challenging Beijing's claim to most of the South China Sea, a day after a dramatic stand-off with China's coastguard.
Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario yesterday announced the filing of the plea before the UN arbitration tribunal despite Chinese warnings of a fallout in bilateral relations. This comes days after President Xi Jinping compared China to an "awakened lion". Xi's use of the lion metaphor in a speech in Paris to commemorate the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations with France was seen by analysts as a desire for more assertive foreign policy.
Del Rosario said Manila had asked the UN tribunal to declare China's claims over the strategic and resource-rich waters as a violation of international law. "It is about defending what is legitimately ours. It is about securing our children's future. It is about guaranteeing freedom of navigation for all nations," he said.
China's claims over the South China Sea, believed to harbour vast oil and gas reserves, overlap those of the Philippines as well as Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan.
The Philippines announced last year that it would ask the UN to declare China's claims illegal under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. The filing beats a March 30 deadline set by the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea.
Chief Philippine government lawyer Francis Jardeleza said he expected the tribunal, based in the German city of Hamburg, to advise both parties on the next steps. He did not know when a ruling would be made.
China has refused to take part in the arbitration with foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei last week warning that bilateral relations would suffer if the Philippines pursued the appeal.
"The case could further heighten tensions and prompt China to move to shoals claimed by the Philippines," said Ramon Casiple, executive director of the Institute for Political and Electoral Reform in Manila. "Other claimants such as Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia are watching how this case will play out."
Manila has argued that China's claims cover areas as far as 1,611 kilometres from the nearest Chinese coast and interfere with the Philippines' exercising of its rights to its continental shelf.
The Philippine filing came a day after a Filipino supply vessel slipped past a blockade of Chinese coastguard vessels to deliver supplies to, and rotate troops from, a remote and disputed South China Sea reef. A small number of Filipino soldiers are stationed on a navy vessel that was grounded on Second Thomas Shoal in 1999 to assert the Philippines' sovereignty.
Additional reporting by Bloomberg