MANILA: The Philippines on Thursday called on Malaysia, Vietnam and other claimants to join its legal challenge to China’s massive territorial claim in the South China Sea.
In a bold step, Filipino officials took their territorial disputes with China to international arbitration in January last year after Chinese government ships took control of a disputed shoal off the northwestern Philippines.
They asked the tribunal to declare China’s claim to about 80 percent of the strategic waters and Beijing’s seizure of eight South China Sea shoals and reefs illegal. China has ignored the legal challenge but the tribunal has proceeded and asked the Philippines to submit its legal arguments and evidence by March 30.
The Philippines chief lawyer, Solicitor-General Francis Jardeleza, said Malaysia, Vietnam and two other governments could either take part in the Philippine case or file their own complaints against China. Smaller countries, he said, can only have a chance to peacefully defend their territories against the Asian superpower in a legal arena.
“Where can the weak go?” Jardeleza asked in a Manila forum on the territorial disputes.
“We are here to prove that from the point of view of the rule of law, all of the actions and all of the claims of China are … invalid.”
China, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam have overlapping claims across the busy South China Sea. The disputes have periodically erupted into dangerous confrontations, sparking tensions and straining ties.
Law professor Raul Pangalangan told the forum that the Philippines wanted China to explain the limits and basis of its vast claims. China, Jardeleza said, could still change its mind and join the arbitration, which would take at least two years to conclude.
China has asked the other claimants to settle the disputes through one-on-one negotiations, something that would give it advantage because of its sheer size and clout. It has also warned Washington not to get involved.
The Philippines may include recent aggressive Chinese acts in its complaint, including what it said was the firing of a water cannon by a Chinese coast guard ship to drive away Filipino fishermen from the disputed Scarborough Shoal on Jan. 27, Jardeleza said.
China has controlled the shoal since Philippine vessels backed off from a tense standoff there in 2012. Chinese coast guard and surveillance ships have guarded the territory and chased away Filipino fishermen if they ventured close.
After the Philippines raised the Jan. 27 incident publicly, the Chinese Embassy in Manila responded that Beijing “has indisputable sovereignty over South China Sea islands and their adjacent waters,” Scarborough Shoal included.