The Philippines yesterday filed a formal plea to the UN challenging Beijing’s claim to most of the South China Sea, defying Chinese warnings, a day after a dramatic maritime stand-off with the Asian giant.
Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said Manila filed the plea before a UN arbitration 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 told a news conference.
China’s claims over the South China Sea, believed to harbour vast oil and gas reserves, overlap those of the Philippines, as well as Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam.
The Philippines announced in January last year that it would ask the UN to declare China’s claims over the area illegal under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. The tribunal had given Manila until yesterday to submit its legal brief.
Chief Philippine government lawyer Francis Jardeleza said he expects the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, based in Hamburg, Germany, to advise both parties on the next steps. He did not know when a ruling will be made.
However, any verdict reached by the tribunal is non-binding.
Both officials declined to disclose the specifics of about 4,000 pages of documents that were submitted to the tribunal.
Beijing has refused to take part in the arbitration, with Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Hong Lei (洪磊) on Wednesday warning that bilateral relations will suffer if the Philippines pursued the appeal.
The spokesman also said China was “committed to managing and resolving relevant issues [in the South China Sea] through dialogue and consultation.”
Manila has argued that China’s claims cover areas as far as 870 nautical miles (1,611km) from the nearest Chinese coast and interfere with the Philippines’ exercise of its rights to its continental shelf.
The Philippine filing came a day after one of its supply vessels slipped past a blockade of Chinese coast guard vessels to deliver supplies to, and rotate troops from, a remote South China Sea reef.
The dramatic confrontation took place at Second Thomas Shoal (Renai Shoal, 仁愛暗沙), where a small number of Filipino soldiers are stationed on a navy vessel, BRP Sierra Madre, that was grounded there in 1999 to assert the Philippines’ sovereignty.
China had said its coast guard turned away a similar attempt on March 9, forcing the Philippine military to air-drop supplies to the marines.
The Philippine argues the disputed areas, including the Second Thomas Shoal, are part of the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone and continental shelf over which Manila has sole sovereign rights under the UN sea treaty.
China and the Philippines are signatories to the 1982 treaty, but Beijing has repeatedly said it has sovereign rights over the entire Spratly Islands (Nansha Islands, 南沙群島), as well as waters and other islets approaching its neighbors.
It has also accused the Philippines of illegally “occupying” Second Thomas Shoal, which is about 200km from the western Philippine island of Palawan and about 1,100km from the nearest major Chinese land mass.
Philippine military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Ramon Zagala yesterday said that authorities were hoping the supply vessel would be able to leave the shoal without further incident after delivering food, water and fresh troops.
Asked if he expected further confrontation, Zagala said he did not know.
“We want them [boat and crew] to safely return,” he said.