The Philippines will file a case against China over the disputed South China Sea at an arbitration tribunal in The Hague next week, subjecting Beijing to international legal scrutiny over the increasingly tense waters for the first time.
Manila is seeking a ruling to confirm its right to exploit the waters in its 200 nautical mile (370km) exclusive economic zone (EEZ) as allowed under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), its team of US and British lawyers said.
A ruling against China by the five-member panel of the Permanent Court of Arbitration could prompt other claimants to challenge Beijing, experts said.
While legally binding, any ruling would effectively be unenforceable as there is no body under UNCLOS to police such decisions, legal experts said.
China, which has refused to participate in the case, claims about 90 percent of the South China Sea, displaying its reach on official maps with a so-called “nine-dash line” that stretches deep into the maritime heart of Southeast Asia.
Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei as well as the Philippines also lay claim to parts of the potentially energy-rich waters.
The UN convention gives a country 12 nautical miles of territorial control with claim to sovereign rights to explore, exploit and manage natural resources within a 322km area. China claims several reefs and shoals in Manila’s EEZ.
The head of the Philippines’ legal team, Paul Reichler, a lawyer at US firm Foley Hoag, told reporters that a submission would be sent electronically tomorrow, meeting a deadline of March 30 set by the tribunal. Manila filed an initial complaint in January last year.
Legal experts said it could take months for the panel to weigh the case.
Diplomats and experts who follow the tensions in the South China Sea said Manila was going ahead despite pressure from China to delay or drop its submission.
“They’ve crossed a significant line here ... the pressure to withdraw before actually mounting an argument has been intense, but they’ve stayed the course,” the Australian Defence Force Academy’s Carl Thayer said.
Arbitration would clarify Manila’s rights to fishing and other resources in its EEZ, as well as rights to enforce its laws in those areas, Philippines Secretary of Foreign Affairs Albert del Rosario said.
“We see arbitration as an open, friendly and durable solution to the dispute,” Del Rosario told a business forum recently.
China reiterated this week that it would not take part.
Diplomats said the case was the focus of growing interest across East Asia and beyond, given China’s assertiveness in both the South and East China seas.
Washington has stiffened its rhetorical support for Manila’s action, even as it insists it does not take sides in regional territorial disputes.
The US Department of State warned this month of the “ambiguity” of some claims to the South China Sea and called for disputes to be solved legally and peacefully, through means such as arbitration.
China has applied pressure behind the scenes, attempting to isolate the Philippines within the Association of South East Asian Nations, one regional diplomat said.
“China has let us all know that they are very angry ... The message is clear — you must not support this in any way,” said the regional envoy, who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Diplomatic sources in Vietnam have told reporters that China put pressure on Hanoi against joining the case at the tribunal.
A Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman last month said Hanoi reserved the right to apply “all necessary and appropriate peaceful means” to protect its sovereignty.
Malaysian officials have given no indication they are planning to join the action or launch their own case.
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