The Philippines plans to challenge China’s maritime claims before a United Nations-endorsed tribunal, a move that may raise tensions as the two nations vie for oil, gas and fish resources in contested 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 told reporters in Manila yesterday. “To this day, a solution is elusive. We hope the arbitral proceedings shall bring this dispute to a durable solution.”
The Philippines is challenging China’s “nine-dash” map of the sea, first published in 1947, that extends hundreds of miles south from China’s Hainan Island to the equatorial waters off the coast of Borneo. China claims “indisputable sovereignty” over more than 100 small islands, atolls and reefs that form the Paracel and Spratly Islands.
China’s assertiveness in disputed waters has raised tensions throughout Asia and generated concern among U.S. officials over access to the South China Sea, where its navy has patrolled since World War II. Vietnam and the Philippines reject China’s map of the waters as a basis for joint development of oil and gas.
“This move from the Philippines smacks of desperation and is likely to achieve little apart from highlighting its dispute on the international stage but alienating China even more,” said Gary Li, head of marine and aviation forecasting at Exclusive Analysis Ltd., recently acquired by Englewood, Colorado-based IHS Inc. “Militarily it is weak, and in terms of alliances it has not been able to secure the firm backing of the U.S. as much as Washington’s other allies.”
Chinese and Philippine vessels squared off early last year over the Scarborough Shoal, a disputed land feature in the waters claimed by both countries. The U.S. has been vague about whether a mutual defense treaty with the Philippines covers the islands, whereas it has repeatedly said the East China Sea islands called Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese fall under its security treaty with Japan.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe this week sent a letter to China’s Communist Party leader Xi Jinping through a member of his coalition government. Natsuo Yamaguchi, head of the New Komeito Party, is in Beijing until Jan. 25 and will meet with members of the China-Japan Friendship Association.
China has “indisputable sovereignty” over the islands in question and wants to solve the dispute through bilateral negotiation, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told a briefing in Beijing today. He said the dispute was caused by the Philippines’ “illegal occupation” of some islands and warned against “actions that will complicate or magnify the situation.”
Chinese officials criticized Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for last week saying the U.S. opposes any effort to disrupt Japan’s administration of the uninhabited islands, and both Asian countries have sent fighter planes to the area in the past month to monitor the other’s movements.
The Philippines can seek arbitration with China under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea if it does not involve disputes relating to military activities, historic bays or provisions on delimiting maritime boundaries, according to Robert C. Beckman, director of the Center for International Law at the National University of Singapore.
The UN convention “has no provisions on the sovereignty claims to the islands,” he wrote in an e-mail. “Therefore, the ruling of the tribunal would have no affect on the sovereignty claims.”
A paper posted on the website of the Chinese embassy in Manila rejects the jurisdiction of arbitral tribunals to resolve the territorial dispute.
“The Philippines claimed that it will defeat China with international law,” wrote Wu Hui, a professor at the University of International Relations in Beijing, in the paper on the embassy’s website dated May 22. “Yet it should be aware that the law opposes not only the strong countries bullying the weak, but also the small ones cheating.”
China bases its claims in the South China Sea on “abundant historical and legal evidence.” The U.S. and neighboring countries have called on it to clarify the claims according to UNCLOS, which allows countries to claim a continental shelf and 200-mile exclusive economic zone.
The Philippines and Vietnam have sought to explore and develop offshore areas that are also claimed by China, leading to clashes in which Chinese ships have moved against survey vessels. Last year, China National Offshore Oil Corp., the government-owned parent of Cnooc Ltd., invited foreign oil and gas producers to develop disputed areas off Vietnam that Hanoi’s leaders had already awarded to companies including Exxon Mobil Corp. and OAO Gazprom.
The Philippines is open to joint development with China only in accordance with Philippine law, the Foreign Affairs Department said in a statement Jan. 21.
The South China Sea is estimated to have as much as 30 billion metric tons of oil and 16 trillion cubic meters of gas, which would account for about one-third of China’s oil and gas resources, according to China’s official Xinhua News Agency. It also contains fishing resources.
Australia, a U.S. ally, will hold joint military exercises and high-level military exchanges with China, Prime Minister Julia Gillard said today. Such exercises may include the U.S., Defense Force chief David Hurley told the Australian newspaper in an interview published Dec. 27.
“It is the relationship between China and the U.S. that more than any other will determine the temperature of regional affairs in coming decades,” Gillard said in a speech in Canberra. “We remain optimistic about the ability of China and the U.S. to manage change in the region, but their relationship inevitably brings with it strategic competition as China’s global interests expand.”