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Philippines challenges Chinese claims to waters through tribunal

January 22, 2013
  • Philippines Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario reads a statement during a press conference in Manila on Tuesday.
Philippines Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario reads a statement… (Ted Aljibe / Agence France-Presse…)

The Philippines is taking a feud with China to an international tribunal, it announced Tuesday, the latest turn in the simmering dispute over a string of rocky outcroppings in the South China Sea.

In a claim shared Tuesday with the Chinese ambassador, the Philippines challenged the assertion that Chinese sovereignty extends over “virtually the entire South China Sea,” including areas within 93 miles of the coast of the Philippine islands of Luzon and Palawan, according to its statement. It wants a United Nations tribunal to reject Chinese claims and bar its “unlawful” actions in the disputed waters.

“The Philippines has exhausted almost all political and diplomatic avenues for a peaceful negotiated settlement of its maritime dispute with China,” Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario said at a news conference Tuesday. Though such efforts date back to 1995, “to this day, a solution is still elusive.”

Manila said China seized control over the rocks of the Scarborough Shoal and around the Spratly Islands, then illegally barred the Philippines from navigating or fishing in the area.

The Philippines argued that the reefs and rocks claimed by China are part of its “exclusive economic zone.” In its written claim, it asserted that Chinese boats had exploited the waters for endangered species, including sea turtles, sharks and giant clams.

In reaction, the Chinese ambassador to the Philippines restated China's “indisputable sovereignty” over the waters and argued that the two sides should negotiate themselves, Chinese state media reported.

Turning to the U.N. tribunal is “Manila's latest attempt to show its hardline position toward China on the territorial disputes,” the official New China News Agency stated. “The Chinese government has always stood for a negotiated settlement of international disputes through peaceful means.”

The Philippines rejected the idea that heading to the tribunal was anything but peaceful. “China is a friend,” its Foreign Office said in a written Q & A given to journalists. “Arbitration is a peaceful and amicable process to settle a dispute among friends.”

The two countries were locked in a standoff over the Scarborough Shoal last spring, a sign of mounting tensions over Chinese claims to fishing waters that could also prove lucrative for oil and gas.

Chinese claims to broad swaths of the South China Sea have also put it at odds with Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan. Another dispute over a different set of islands has ramped up tensions with Japan, raising fears that the diplomatic sparring could escalate into an outright conflict.

Notifying China of its claim marks the beginning of arbitration proceedings, Del Rosario said. The competing claims of China and the Philippines are unlikely to be resolved soon. Del Rosario estimated that the case would take three to four years to work through the international tribunal, which handles disputes over the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Even if the U.N. tribunal backs up the Philippines, however, one expert warned that China was unlikely to accept the results.

“There is no precedent in Chinese history of China allowing international arbitration on territorial disputes no matter over land or waters,” Peking University international affairs expert Chen Shaofeng told the Associated Press. “The Philippines knows its proposal for arbitration will get nowhere in the end, but it just wants to make the issue more internationalized.”

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