VOA: Philippines Eyes Swift Conclusion of West Philippines & South China Sea Arbitration

The Philippines is pressing forward with its legal challenge to China's territorial claims in the South China Sea. Philippine officials this week said they were hopeful the U.N. arbitration body could issue a ruling sooner than initially expected.

A top diplomat says the country is hopeful that the panel of the United Nations International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea will have a ruling before President Benigno Aquino's term ends in 2016.  Philippine officials had previously said the case would take three to four years to complete.

This week Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario told an audience in Manila that pursuing arbitration was the only viable option after Manila had "exhausted all diplomatic avenues" to try to settle its dispute with Beijing over contested rocks and outcroppings in the South China Sea.

"China's continuous overwhelming naval and maritime presence in the area is also contributing to the raising of regional tensions," he said.

The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan have partial or total claims to the resource-rich and highly traversed sea.  China maintains it has indisputable sovereignty over nearly the entire sea.

The Philippines filed its case in January under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which states that coastal nations are entitled to maritime territory that extends some 22 kilometers offshore. It also provides for a 370 kilometer economic exclusion zone for fishing and mining natural resources. While China has signed the convention, it has rejected the Philippine case.  Beijing has not responded to any of the subsequent proceedings, effectively making the Philippines the only active party.

Last week Paul Reichler, the Philippines' lead counsel, told the Wall Street Journal that if China continues "to hold to its position" he expects an award to come down by mid-to-late 2014.

Carl Thayer, a researcher on South China Sea disputes at the Australia Defense Force Academy, says international adjudicators, who are not connected to the case, have mixed views on the outcome.

He says there are two hurdles the Philippines must overcome before the tribunal can even hear its case.

"That the arbitral tribunal has jurisdiction, in other words it does not touch on matters that China has exempted itself from and that the Philippines' claim is well-founded in law.  And I think the latter is very strong," he said.

China's position

Thayer explains that before Beijing signed the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, it chose to opt out of international jurisdiction over some territorial issues, effectively forbidding outside scrutiny of some issues. The Philippines is trying to convince the U.N. tribunal to reaffirm its own territorial claim based on international law.

During a regular news briefing in Beijing Friday, VOA asked Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying if China plans to participate in the U.N. tribunal when the Philippines submits evidence for its claims in March.

She said China does not accept the arbitration request submitted by the Philippines side. She also urged the Philippines to resolve the dispute through bilateral negotiation.

Last month, China hosted a meeting with the 10-member Association of Southeast Nations to discuss how they would implement the conditions of an 11-year old non-binding pledge to peacefully manage the disputes in the South China Sea.  The Philippines has been pushing for negotiations on a legally binding code and is trying to drum up international support for it.

Voice of America

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