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Philippines: One-up Against China?

03 Apr Philippines: One-up Against China?

The decision of the Philippines to lodge a case on disputed waters in the South China Sea with an international tribunal under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) has been met with strong criticism from China. The Chinese foreign ministry insisted that the “direct cause of the dispute between China and the Philippines is the latter’s illegal occupation of some of China’s islands and reefs in the South China Sea”.

However, it should be highlighted that the Philippines is not asking the tribunal to rule on the sovereignty of the islands and reefs in the South China Sea. Rather, it is posing a technical question to the tribunal – can China’s “nine-dash line” negate the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ) under UNCLOS? UNCLOS grants a 200-nautical mile EEZ extending from a country’s coastline. China’s “nine-dash line” – drawn up by China over the South China Sea to demarcate its claims – is just 30 to 50 miles away from the coast of the sovereign territory of the Philippines.

In bringing the matter to an international tribunal, the Philippines is internationalising the dispute, as observers noted. That is the most logical step for a country to take in a territorial dispute, especially when it is faced against a larger and more powerful country – China. Whatever the merits of the Philippines’ case are, its decision to take the matter to an international tribunal is certainly preferable to staging hostile manoeuvres at sea.

China does not seem likely to file a counter-memorial, as it can exercise its right to abstain from the tribunal. In 2006, China made a statutory statement about such disputes when it ratified UNCLOS. This exempts them from a mandatory settlement of disputes over sea delimitation and territorial disputes.

Beijing’s admonition to Manila – to “come back on the right track” of resolving the dispute through bilateral negotiation – does not seem a realistic solution. Bilateral negotiations have made precious little headway.

Beijing would do well to respond carefully to the case that is before the UNCLOS tribunal, or else be deservedly seen as a big bully to the other claimant states of the South China Sea islands and shoals. Until then, the Philippines will have the moral upper hand over China in this long- standing maritime dispute.


China rejects Philippines case on ‘nine-dash’ line [Financial Times, 31 Mar 2014]

China stands firm against Manila sea plea to intl court [Global Times, 31 Mar 2014]