The Philippines has taken a legal step to counter China's overlapping claims to disputed territory in the South China Sea, formally notifying Beijing that it is pursuing international arbitration under the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to declare Chinese moves in disputed waters as "illegal and invalid". Filipino Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said his country has "exhausted almost all political and diplomatic avenues for a peaceful negotiated settlement of its maritime disputes with China", even if the Philippines wants to enhance economic ties with China.
Report: Philippines to bring South China Sea dispute with Beijing to tribunal [Guardian, 22 Jan 2013]
Analysis: China Likely to Ignore Philippines' Challenge in South China Sea [VOA, 23 Jan 2013]
Observers see this as a move by the Philippines to give legitimacy to its own claims against China. However, it is believed that China is likely to ignore the Philippines' challenge and continue to insist on bilateral negotiations. Already, the Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines has responded by reiterating that China holds "indisputable sovereignty" over the islands in the South China Sea, and that the disputes should be resolved through a negotiated settlement.
SIIA Chairman Simon Tay remarked in a commentary that "if Beijing refuses to participate, these proceedings can still go ahead without them... Even if China participates and loses, Beijing can refuse to comply and there will be no penalties or police to enforce the ruling."
These developments come amid mounting Sino-Japanese tensions over territorial spats in the East China Sea, as well as the US rebalancing towards Asia which some see as directed against China. In this context, Prof. Tay emphasised the importance of ASEAN neutrality, and that ASEAN continues to work cohesively on the disputes. "It is critical that ASEAN maintain its neutrality... ASEAN neutrality, however cannot mean inactivity. To the contrary, current ASEAN chair Brunei must work with others in the group to rebuild trust, with the aim of beginning negotiations on a code of conduct for activities in the contested areas."
The best way forward is to stabilise relations, Prof. Tay underscored. "Challenging China under UNCLOS is a decision by the Aquino administration that international law allows and no other country can stop. But what others in the region can and must do is to help prevent the legal process from creating a political mess."