Manila (Philippine Daily Inquirer/ANN) - "See you at the United Nations," the Philippine Palace told China yesterday after the Chinese Embassy in Manila made a belated appeal to settle their territorial dispute in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) through bilateral negotiations.
China said yesterday that the Philippines' going to the United Nations for arbitration would only complicate the dispute and reiterated that the Philippines is occupying islands in the sea "illegally".
It is unclear how the UN arbitral tribunal can help. While all its decisions are binding on countries concerned, it has no power to enforce them.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said the world body would provide "technical and professional assistance".
But the issues should be resolved primarily by the "parties concerned," Ban said.
Told about Ban's comment, President Benigno Aquino III's spokesperson Edwin Lacierda said at a press briefing in the Palace that he was confident the UN arbitral tribunal would take cognisance of the Philippine case challenging China's claim over most of the West Philippine Sea.
China's appeal too late
Lacierda said the Philippines had already filed a notification and statement of claim in the United Nations, and it would be logical for the world body to ask China to respond to the Philippine challenge.
That's why China's appeal for a negotiated settlement of the dispute, made through the Chinese Embassy in Manila, came too late, Lacierda said.
"That's a statement that is after the fact," Lacierda said. "We've already filed it so let's ... just see each other at the international tribunal."
Speaking to reporters in Beijing, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hong Lei said the Philippines was occupying some of China's islands in the sea.
"China has consistently opposed the Philippines' illegal occupation," Hong said.
China supports talks, but only on a bilateral basis with the countries directly involved, as previously agreed on by China and members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), Hong added.
"We hope that the relevant country honours its promises, and ... does not take any action to complicate or expand the problem," he said, without elaborating.
The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) briefed the diplomatic corps on the Philippines' legal action yesterday and Foreign Undersecretary Erlinda Basilio said most of the diplomats were "supportive" of Manila's decision to take the dispute to the United Nations.
"They are supportive because it's a peaceful way," Basilio told the Inquirer after the briefing at the DFA.
"We already know our maritime entitlements [in the disputed waters] but we want a neutral body, a tribunal-because it's provided for in Unclos (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea)-to say once and for all that 'these are the marine entitlements of the Philippines, you (China) better respect that,'" Basilio said.
Among those who came to the briefing were diplomats from the United Kingdom, Middle Eastern and African countries. The United States was absent, as US officials were busy with other activities, Basilio said.
'Letting friends know'
Diplomats from Southeast Asian countries were briefed on the Philippine action on Tuesday, shortly after the DFA announced its decision to seek UN arbitration.
Basilio said the briefings were meant "to let friends know" about the Philippines' legal action.
"We explained to them what we wanted to know [through the United Nations], our maritime entitlements [in the West Philippine Sea]," Basilio said.
Foreign Assistant Secretary Gilberto Asuque said the DFA also instructed Philippine foreign posts and representatives to organisations around the world, including the United Nations, the International Maritime Organisation, the Asean and the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, to seek backing for the Philippine legal action from those groups.
"We ask the countries to support the Philippines' effort toward a peaceful and durable solution," Asuque told a press briefing Wednesday.
Invoking the Unclos, the Philippines on Tuesday haled China to the UN arbitral tribunal in hopes of compelling Beijing to respect Manila's exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and continental shelf encompassing territories in the West Philippine Sea.
Desperate legal step
It was a desperate legal step to settle peacefully the territorial dispute between the two countries over resource-rich Panatag Shoal (Scarbourough Shoal) and parts of the Spratly Islands, a group of islets, atolls and reefs believed to be sitting on vast gas and oil reserves.
In announcing the Philippine action on Tuesday, Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said Manila hoped the UN tribunal would order China to "desist from activities that violate the rights of the Philippines in its maritime domain".
But even if the tribunal rules against China, Beijing could choose to ignore the ruling.
Chen Shaofeng, an international affairs expert at Beijing University, said no arbitration should proceed unless both parties approve it. He said it is unlikely that Beijing would agree to such a process, or accept the results of a tribunal it did not recognise.
"There is no precedent in the history of China allowing international arbitration on territorial disputes no matter over land or waters," Chen said. "The Philippines knows its proposal for arbitration will get nowhere in the end, but it just wants to make the issue more internationalised."
Philippine diplomats argue, however, that the arbitration can proceed even without China's involvement.
In the note delivered to Chinese Ambassador Ma Keqing on Tuesday, the Philippines listed several aggressive moves it alleged were launched by China in recent years to fortify its territorial claims, including the occupation of islands and the enactment of a Chinese law that allows Chinese patrol vessels to block and board foreign ships passing through vast stretches of waters in the West Philippine Sea.
The Philippine specifically sought an end to Chinese occupation and activities on eight reefs and shoals and surrounding waters, including Mischief Reef, which China occupied in 1995, sparking fierce protests from Manila and concern from other Southeast Asian countries.
In June, after a face-off that lasted more than two months, China wrested control of Panatag Shoal without firing a shot.
With a typhoon approaching, both sides agreed to withdraw their ships. But China quickly returned and strung up a cable across the lagoon to keep Philippine vessels out.
Besides the Philippines and China, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan have claims to parts of the Spratlys.
Around the disputed territories are waters that are home to vital sea-lanes where a third of global trade passes.
China claims all of them, most recently printing on new passports a map showing the entire sea as part of its territory, a strategy aimed at making its rivals recognise its claims.
Lacierda said the Philippine action was part of the Unclos rules.
"We filed it. They are bound to accept it and a case will be presented," Lacierda said.
The Philippines ratified the 1982 convention in 1984 and China in 1996, but the two countries have conflicting interpretations of its provisions, especially on the scope of the (EEZ).
According to Asuque, the Philippines continues to pursue a diplomatic solution to the dispute. Negotiations with China go on despite the Philippine move for arbitral proceedings, he said.
Other claimants to territories in the West Philippine Sea may interplead in the Philippine case, he said.
Pressed on the prospect of China ignoring the UN call to arbitration, Asuque said the process was compulsory.
But he added, "Let us not anticipate. We have to give it to China to make its decision."
With reports from AP and Reuters
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