Last week, the Philippines presented its arguments before the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague to convince the tribunal that the court has jurisdiction over the South China Sea dispute. The Philippines is hoping that the tribunal will decide in its favor so that the dispute with China can be eventually handled by the international court. China has repeatedly voiced opposition to this as Beijing believes the matter should be handled bilaterally with Manila. Despite numerous requests from Beijing asking that the case be dropped, Manila refuses to back down.
On Monday, the tribunal concluded its week-long hearing with the delegation from the Philippines. The following day though, China called on the Philippines once again to drop its arbitration case. Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying said in a statement, “China urges the Philippines to come back to the right track of resolving disputes through negotiation and consultation.” He added that China “will never accept the unilateral attempts to turn to a third party to solve the disputes.” This is not the first time Beijing has publicly condemned the tribunal or asked the Philippines to drop the case.
On the opening day of the tribunal, July 7, China’s ambassador to the Philippines, Zhao Jianhua, offered new bilateral talks to settle the dispute. The same day, Hua stated, “China has, on many occasions, expounded its position of neither accepting nor participating in the arbitral proceeding unilaterally initiated by the Philippines in breach of the agreement that has been repeatedly reaffirmed with China as well as the Philippines’ undertakings in the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea.”
The Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) was signed in 2002 between China and ASEAN members. It discourages claimant nations from engaging in activities that will heighten tensions in the disputed region. China has insisted that by filing this case, the Philippines has violated the DOC. Manila has repeatedly stressed that any negotiation on the issue must involve the input of ASEAN member states, though China insists on bilateral talks. Zhao has stated though that the Philippines does not need to drop the case as a precondition for new bilateral talks.
China’s opposition to the tribunal dates to when the case was first filed. Though urged by the tribunal to take part, China has publicly refused, and when asked by the tribunal to submit counterarguments, China instead submitted a “position paper” declaring that the court has no jurisdiction over the dispute. Citing the opt-out clause of Article 298 of UNCLOS, China has argued that it is entitled to reject arbitration in this dispute. Despite China’s apprehension, Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs spokesman Charles Jose has stated, “We have asked China to participate and we continue to extend the invitation for them to explain their side.”
South China Sea: the case
The tribunal, which was held behind closed doors, resulted from the case first filed by the Philippines in January 2013 at a United Nations tribunal. Manila hopes that the tribunal will eventually decide that the court has jurisdiction over the dispute and intervene. While arguments made during the tribunal are not publicly available, the opening statement by Philippine Foreign Minister Albert del Rosario and the Philippines provides five key points against China’s claims in the South China Sea, which have been made public. Observers from several nations, including Vietnam, were allowed to attend the hearings. Vietnam is also engaged in the South China Sea dispute.
The tribunal is giving the Philippines a July 23 deadline to provide additional written submissions to bolster its case against China. Meanwhile, the tribunal has given China until August 17 to comment on the hearing despite its refusal to take part. The tribunal is requesting that China provide its stance on the issues of jurisdiction in the case. Based on past responses by China, it is doubtful that Beijing will offer anything but a rebuttal to the hearing, as it already has stated it will not recognize any arbitration by an international court.
Philippines works on island outpost
Meanwhile in Second Thomas Shoal, the Philippine military is working on reinforcing the rusting hull of the BRP Sierra Madre. The BRP Sierra Madre is a former U.S. landing ship from WWII that was beached on the shoal in 1999 to act as an outpost for the Philippine military. Located 105 nautical miles from Palawan, Second Thomas Shoal is within the Philippines’ 200 nautical mile EEZ and is only 134 nautical miles away from the Chinese-occupied Mischief Reef.
China has been engaged in island building at Mischief Reef, and recently an amphibious assault ship of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) was spotted there. Philippine Foreign Ministry spokesman Charles Jose said the work being done on the ship does not violate the 2002 code of conduct. In recent years, China has sought to prevent Philippine supply ships from reaching the Sierra Madre by using coastguard ships to effectively mount a blockade.
Where to now?
International opinion against China in the South China Sea dispute is mounting, and this is not just confined to the opinion of governments. Just today, Google Maps removed the Chinese name for the Scarborough Shoal from its maps in response to complaints from the Philippines. Beijing understands that world opinion is not in its favor, so it seeks to persuade Manila to drop the case and allow the dispute to be settled bilaterally.
Manila has made it clear that the only way it will allow the dispute to be settled is either through international arbitration or through the involvement of ASEAN members. Neither of these choices is palatable to Beijing. The tribunal is expected to make a decision within the next three months; if it is decided that the dispute is in the jurisdiction of the court, the case will enter the next phase. Then the ball is in China’s court if it wants to take part or not.