Over the past decade, the Philippines has viewed China as its biggest challenger in the contested South China Sea . But even as it shares a common rival in Beijing with other Southeast Asian claimant states, Manila has also sought to reject bids by its neighbours in the contested waterway. Earlier this month, the Philippines sent a diplomatic note urging the UN Secretary-General against considering Malaysia’s submission to partially expand its continental shelf – which refers to a 200-nautical-mile area extending from a state’s shoreline – in the South China Sea. Manila noted that Malaysia ’s claims, lodged in December 2019, referred to regions that overlapped with the Philippines’ continental shelf – including parts of the Kalayaan Island Group and North Borneo, over which the Philippines has sovereignty. This was not the first time the Philippines has attempted to get the UN’s Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) to reject Malaysia’s submission. In 2009, Manila protested against a joint submission made by Malaysia and Vietnam . Competing claims over maritime jurisdictions in the South China Sea – a mineral-rich waterway which sees the movement of more than US$3.4 trillion worth of goods every year – have been a source of distrust and tension in the region. Despite many efforts to manage the conflict, the disputes seem to be politically deadlocked. On the one hand, claimants from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations ( Asean ) – the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia – have banded together to protest against China ’s claims in the sea, noting that the Chinese position is inconsistent with international law, including the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Beijing claims sovereignty over the four offshore archipelagos and different types of maritime jurisdictions within the “nine-dash line” in the South China Sea. Malaysia, China and Vietnam in fresh South China Sea stand-off On the other hand, the individual claimants have separate issues of sovereignty and territorial rights to the waters and the seabed underneath. In May 2009, Malaysia and Vietnam made a joint submission to the CLCS in the southern part of the sea. Just a day later, Vietnam independently made a partial submission regarding an area in the north of the waterway – a region also contested by the Philippines and China. In December 2019, Malaysia made a partial submission to extend its continental shelf in the South China Sea. The Philippines and China – which do not have any submissions to extend their continental shelf – each protested the joint and individual submissions made by Malaysia and Vietnam. According to its regulations, the CLCS will not consider any submission made by a state that is a party to a dispute until it is first resolved. Therefore the CLCS is likely to defer further its consideration of the submissions by coastal states bordering the South China Sea when objections are raised over the territorial and maritime claims. In its note to the UN, the Philippines also dismissed China’s rejection of Malaysia’s submission, showing explicit support for the 2016 Tribunal Award that qualified all insular features on the Spratly Islands’ archipelago as having only 12 nautical miles of territorial sea, and no claim to generating their own exclusive economic zones and continental shelves. In July 2016, the The Hague tribunal issued an arbitration ruling which was overwhelmingly in favour of the Philippines – a result China insisted was null and void. While Manila has not pursued the decision in its bilateral meetings with Beijing over the past three years, the Philippines has continued maintaining in the international arena that the award against China is binding. It has cited the ruling as endorsement for its claims and actions in the South China Sea, such as the construction of a new beaching ramp at Thitu Island in the Spratly archipelago. How Vietnam is using fishing trawlers to keep an eye on China’s military Other claimant states have also conducted their maritime activities based on The Hague’s award. In a letter by the Vietnam Society of International Law (VSIL) to the Chinese Society of International Law (CSIL) last October, Hanoi cited the award as a legal reason for its oil- and gas-drilling operations in the adjacent waters of the Vietnam-controlled Vanguard Bank. It also indicated that it would follow in the Philippines’ footsteps by submitting the Sino-Vietnamese disputes to an international court or arbitral tribunal to seek a compulsory settlement. In January, Jakarta protested vehemently after it discovered Chinese fishing and coastguard vessels near the Indonesia-controlled Natuna Islands, and invoked The Hague’s decision which said there were no disputed waters between China and Indonesia. Although it remains to be seen how China and the Asean states will respond on this issue, the impact of the situation should not be overlooked, given the development of the controversies after the South China Sea arbitration. In the short term, it has increased tensions in the South China Sea and created more obstacles for the code of conduct negotiations, while in the long term, it may affect maritime functional cooperation and the improvement of political trust between the littoral states. Ding Duo is an associate research fellow at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies in Hainan, China. Purchase the China AI Report 2020 brought to you by SCMP Research and enjoy a 20% discount (original price US$400). 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