China loses round 1 in international court
(The Philippine Star) - October 30, 2015 - 10:00am

MANILA, Philippines - In a legal setback for Beijing, an arbitration court in the Netherlands ruled on Thursday that it has jurisdiction to hear maritime claims the Philippines has filed against China over disputed areas in the South China Sea.

Manila filed the case in 2013 to seek a ruling on its right to exploit the South China Sea waters in its 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) as allowed under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

The Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration rejected Beijing’s claim that the disputes were about territorial sovereignty and said additional hearings would be held to decide the merits of the Philippines’ arguments.

China has boycotted the proceedings and rejects the court’s authority in the case. Beijing claims sovereignty over almost the entire South China Sea, dismissing claims to parts of it from Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei.

It has even built artificial islands – complete with military facilities – over coral reefs and shoals in areas within the EEZ of the Philippines, to assert its claim.

The tribunal found it had authority to hear seven of Manila’s submissions under UNCLOS and China’s decision not to participate did “not deprive the tribunal of jurisdiction.” No date has been set for the next hearings.

The Philippine government welcomed the decision.

Solicitor General Florin Hilbay said the ruling represented a “significant step forward in the Philippines’ quest for a peaceful, impartial resolution of the disputes between the parties and the clarification of their rights under UNCLOS.”

“The elimination of preliminary objections to the exercise of the Tribunal’s jurisdiction opens the way for the presentation of the merits of the Philippines’ substantive claims,” Hilbay added.

Good for relations

In Arteche, Samar, President Aquino said he expects China to respect the decision of the Permanent Court of Arbitration and acknowledge the possibility that it could even redound to the benefit of both countries. Aquino was in Samar yesterday to check on the progress of post-Yolanda road projects.

“When nothing is vague anymore, when what should be followed is clear, isn’t that going to be a way to improve relations with each other because it will no longer be ‘this is my opinion, that is your opinion?” Aquino said.

“Once the correct opinion is clear, relations should improve between each other and other countries with disputes over the sea of many names,” the President said.

Though it was just an initial victory, the President said he was really happy with the decision because an unfavorable ruling would have removed arbitration as an option for pressing territorial claims.

“Isn’t it that what was discussed was: Did we abuse the process by unilaterally filing (a case) without China? They answered that in their decision that we did not abuse the process,” Aquino said, referring to the official press release issued by the PCA.

Being both signatories to the UNCLOS, the Philippines and China should follow the ruling that would pave the way for the PCA to decide on the merits of Manila’s case, Aquino said.

He added the rule of law has always been an equalizer between a big and a small country as stated by Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonio Carpio.

The President said the PCA announced it might decide on the Philippine case by next year and he thanked the court for allowing rule of law to prevail by acting swiftly despite the sensitive nature of the case.

Aquino said he would bring up the latest development before the Association of Southeast Asian Nations during its summit and meetings with dialogue partners in Malaysia in November.

He added he would remind ASEAN of the need for a legally binding code of conduct on South China Sea.

Focus on merits

At Malacañang, Secretary Herminio Coloma Jr. of the Presidential Communications Operations Office said the ruling will “pave the way for the furtherance of the proceedings to evaluate the merits of the position” of the country. He said the government “will await further advice” from the tribunal.

On reports that the naval forces of the US and China have agreed to maintain an open dialogue so as to reduce tensions in the Asia-Pacific region, Coloma said it has always been the Philippines’ position to push for freedom of navigation.

“Our basic position is to promote the freedom of navigation recognizing that the South China Sea or the West Philippine Sea is one of the most important arteries for global commerce,” he said.

“We have always maintained that all disputes pertaining to maritime entitlements in body of water will have to be resolved peacefully in accordance with the rules such as those contained in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea,” Coloma added.

In a text message to reporters, deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte said the ruling would set into motion the country’s formal presentation of its case.

“Our people can be assured that those representing our country have been continuously preparing for this,” she said.

Senate President Franklin Drilon said the decision of arbitral court is a positive step in the country’s efforts to preserve its sovereignty over disputed areas and land features in the West Philippine Sea.

In a statement, Drilon said that the Philippines would now be able to “present before the Permanent Court of Arbitration the merits of our claims over areas of the West Philippine Sea disputed by China.”

“The ruling is a crucial positive step in our efforts to protect our sovereignty,” Drilon said.

“The Philippines remains committed to the peaceful settlement of conflicting claims in the West Philippine Sea in accordance with international law, in particular UNCLOS, with the firm hope that through international law, peace and justice will prevail,” he added.

The Department of National Defense (DND) also welcomed the ruling.

“It’s a very good development not only for the Philippines but also for countries that believe in UNCLOS,” DND spokesman Peter Galvez said in a press briefing yesterday.

“We will continue what we have been doing before. We will support our troops and monitor activities in the area,” he added.

Galvez stressed that the Philippines would continue to advocate rule of law, freedom of navigation and peaceful means of resolving maritime disputes. 

China’s ignoring the ruling would only confirm fears of its neighbors that it’s a bully and a real threat to regional stability, former national security adviser and congressman Roilo Golez said.

“Should we win, and China ignores, they would be portrayed as international outlaws and I doubt whether they would be able to withstand and resist international censure,” Golez, a former naval officer, said.

In a position paper in December, China argued the dispute was not covered by UNCLOS because it was ultimately a matter of sovereignty, not exploitation rights.

UNCLOS does not rule on sovereignty but it does outline a system of territory and economic zones that can be claimed from features such as islands, rocks and reefs.

The court said it could hear arguments including one contending that several South China Sea reefs and shoals were not important enough to base territorial claims on.

On seven other submissions, including that China had violated the Philippines’ sovereign right to exploit its own territorial waters, the court said it would reserve judgment about jurisdiction until it had decided the merits of the case.

The tribunal is composed of  Thomas Mensah of Ghana as president, and Jean-Pierre Cot of France, Stanislaw Pawlak of Poland, professor Alfred Soons of the Netherlands, and Rüdiger Wolfrum of Germany. - Pia Lee-Brago, Delon Porcalla, Marvin Sy, Edu Punay, Aurea Calica, Alexis Romero, Jaime Laude

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