The Philippines took a risky political move Monday by filing an arbitration request against China to the United Nations, over disputed rights to the South China Sea. The 4,000 page memorial details evidence of what the Philippines claims is an illegal occupation of the South China Sea by China, in at least eight sea shoals and reefs. The request for arbitration was delivered to The Hague, a major U.N. location, despite threats of political damage from China.
The Filipino government filed the request with the U.N. believing the powerful legitimacy of the legal body would best uphold their interests. Chinese officials were strongly opposed to the decision, saying the disputes should be solved only on a bi-lateral basis. Hong Lei, China’s Foreign Ministry Spokesman warned the Philippines to “stop going…further down the wrong track so as to avoid further damage to…relations.”
Though Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario stood on firm ground against China, the Philippines had support from the West. Marie Harf, U.S. State Department deputy spokeswoman reacted to China’s statements saying, “all countries should respect the right of any [state]…to avail themselves [with] the…resolution mechanisms provided…under the Law of the Sea Convention.”
Harf’s comments concerning the rights of “any state” brings a new light on the ownership claims in the South China Sea. Not only the Philippines and China but Malaysia, Vietnam, Taiwan and Brunei also all hold claims to parts of the disputed waters. China even claims to own everything in, and under, what they call a “9 dash line,” which runs in a U-shaped form from the southern tip of Taiwan to the east coast of Vietnam.
Disputes over the rights to the South China Sea have been on the rise, but an event last Saturday convinced the Filipino government a political risk was worth their property rights. A Filipino, civilian ship was in trek to deliver supplies to a military outpost on the Second Thomas Shoal, but was warned by a Chinese Coastguard ship to “stop…illegal activities and leave.” When the Filipino ship reported back that they were on a supply mission, the Chinese ship did not budge.
Eventually the ship was forced to re-route into more shallow water, just barely sneaking by the Chinese ship. “If we didn’t…change course…we would have collided with them,” said Ferdinand Gato, captain of the Philippine’s civilian craft.
The Second Thomas Shoal, named “Ren’ai reef” by the Chinese, is a specific area of interest for the Philippines. “We [want]…this area to remain ours. This is the one thing …we are guarding here,” said Filipino marine, Sgt. Jerry Fuentes. The effectively uninhabited sandbar was “claimed” by the Philippines in 1999 when the military intentionally marooned the BRP Sierra Madre to its beaches.
The tribunal’s decision is not expected until the end of 2015, but from it the Philippines hopes to regain essential parts of their U.N.-defined exclusive economic zone, which they claim 80% of is illegally occupied by China. The decision to accept or reject the case has yet to be determined, but China believes the political damage is already done. “Regardless of how the Philippines [presents] its lawsuit,” said Lei, “the direct cause of the dispute…is the Philippines’ illegal occupation…in the South China Sea.”
The arbitration request from the Philippines over rights to the South China Sea may stir up political risk, but Rosario says the Philippines will only except a “just and durable solution grounded [in] international law.”
By Erin P. Friar