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UN tribunal starts arbitration process on PHL-China sea dispute

A United Nations tribunal has been convened in the Netherlands to look into a complaint filed by the Philippines questioning the legality of China’s massive territorial claim in the resource-rich South China Sea.

“The Philippine government is pleased that the Arbitral Tribunal is now formally constituted, and that the arbitration process has begun,” Foreign Affairs spokesman Raul Hernandez told a press briefing Tuesday.
The progress in the Philippines’s legal challenge against China comes amid increasing animosity between the two Asian neighbors due to their long-standing territorial conflict.

Manila and Beijing recently traded diplomatic barbs over the Philippines’s decision to seek international arbitration - the latest manifestation of a longstanding territorial feud between the two countries over South China Sea territories.

Recently, the conflict was reignited with tense confrontations between Chinese and Philippine vessels in two disputed shoals – Scarborough and Ayungin – off Manila’s western coasts.

At their first meeting on July 11, the President and Members of the Tribunal designated The Hague in the Netherlands as the seat of the arbitration and the Permanent Court of Arbitration as the Registry for the proceedings, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said.

Part of the process is to determine if the tribunal has jurisdiction over Manila’s complaint. The case will only proceed once the tribunal decides that the complaint filed by the Philippines has legal merit and falls under its jurisdiction.

“Whether they have decided jurisdiction, they will publicly announce this,” Hernandez said.

Manila pledged its “fullest cooperation” with the tribunal “in order to assure a fair, impartial and efficient process that produces a final and binding judgment in conformity with international law.”

Set of rules

At the July 11 meeting, the tribunal approved a draft set of Rules of Procedure to govern the proceedings, which were sent to the Philippines and China for comment.

The tribunal requested both parties to submit their comments by August 5, along with their proposed schedule for the submission of their written pleadings.

With or without China’s response, the proceedings will carry on, Hernandez said.

The Philippine government and its counsel, Paul Reichler of Foley and Hoag, are now studying the draft Rules of Procedure, and will submit the required documents requested by the tribunal, Hernandez said.

The DFA, he added, will issue statements from time to time to keep the public informed about the progress of the arbitration.

Information will also be made available to the public on the website of the Permanent Court of Arbitration.

Source of conflict

The Philippines sought arbitration under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) last January to try to declare as “illegal” China’s nine-dash claim, which covers almost all of the South China Sea, including sections that have been declared as the West Philippine Sea.

China has resisted Manila’s move to let a U.N. body intervene in the disputes, saying the Philippines’ case was legally infirm and carried unacceptable allegations.

China prefers to negotiate one on one with other claimants, which would give it advantage because of its sheer size compared to smaller rivals that have less military force.

The South China Sea - a strategic waterway and major trade route – had been a source of conflict among competing claimants the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, China and Taiwan.

The vast waters are dotted with islands, reefs, cays, shoals and rock formations. The region is believed to be rich in natural gas and oil deposits, and analysts say the competing claims could spark a military conflict in the region.

Tensions in the area spiked anew last year after the Philippines and Vietnam separately accused China of fresh incursions in areas they say fall within their sovereign waters. - VVP/YA, GMA News