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Philippines files formal plea against Beijing claims on South China Sea

MANILA: The Philippines Sunday filed a formal plea to the United Nations challenging Beijing’s claim to most of the South China Sea, ignoring Beijing’s warning that the case will damage ties.
A day after a dramatic maritime stand-off with the Asian giant, Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario told a news conference that the documents submitted electronically to the tribunal in The Hague consist of nearly 4,000 pages of analysis and documentary evidence.
“It is about defending what is legitimately ours. It is about securing our children’s future. It is about guaranteeing freedom of navigation for all nations,” he told a news conference.
China’s claims over the South China Sea, believed to harbor vast oil and gas reserves, overlap those of the Philippines as well as Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan.
The Philippines announced last year that it will ask the UN to declare China’s claims over the area illegal under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. The tribunal had given Manila until Sunday to submit its legal brief.
Chief Philippine government lawyer Francis Jardeleza said he expects the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, based in the German city of Hamburg, to advise both parties on the next steps. He did not know when a ruling will be made.
Both officials declined to disclose the specifics of around 4,000 pages of documents that were submitted to the tribunal.
China has refused to take part in the arbitration with its foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei last week warning that bilateral relations will suffer if the Philippines pursues the appeal.
Hong also said China was “committed to managing and resolving relevant issues (in the South China Sea) through dialogue and consultation”.
Manila has argued that China’s claims cover areas as far as 870 nautical miles (1,611 km) from the nearest Chinese coast and interfere with the Philippines’ exercise of its rights to its continental shelf.
The Philippine filing came a day after a Filipino supply vessel slipped past a blockade of Chinese coastguard vessels to deliver supplies to, and rotate troops from, a remote and disputed South China Sea reef.
The dramatic confrontation took place at Second Thomas Shoal, where a small number of Filipino soldiers are stationed on a Navy vessel that was grounded there in 1999 to assert the Philippines’ sovereignty.
China had said its coastguard successfully turned away a similar Filipino attempt on March 9, forcing the Philippine military to air-drop supplies to the marines.
The Philippine foreign department argues the disputed areas, including the Second Thomas Shoal, are part of the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone and continental shelf over which Manila has sole sovereign rights under the UN sea treaty.
Both China and the Philippines are signatories to the 1982 treaty, but Beijing has repeatedly said it has sovereign rights over the entire Spratlys as well as waters and other islets approaching its neighbours.
It has also accused the Philippines of illegally “occupying” Second Thomas Shoal, which is around 200 kilometres from the western Philippine island of Palawan and about 1,100 kilometres from the nearest major Chinese land mass.
Philippine military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Ramon Zagala told AFP on Sunday that authorities were hoping the supply vessel would be able to leave the shoal without further incident after delivering food, water and fresh troops.
“We want them (boat and crew) to safely return,” he said.
The two neighbours are also involved in increasingly frequent confrontations over Scarborough Shoal, another South China Sea outcrop that lies about 220 kilometres west of the main Philippine island of Luzon.
Filipino officials took their territorial disputes with China to international arbitration in January 2013 after Chinese government ships took control of a disputed shoal off the northwestern Philippines. They asked the tribunal to declare China’s claims to about 80 percent of the strategic waters and Beijing’s seizure of eight South China Sea shoals and reefs illegal.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told a news conference Wednesday that China will never accept nor participate in the international arbitration pushed by the Philippines. He called on the Philippines “to stop going any further down the wrong track so as to avoid further damage to bilateral relations.”
The Philippines has urged other claimants to join the case, but none have so far publicly stepped forward.
China, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam have overlapping claims across the busy South China Sea.
China has asked 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.
“With firm conviction, the ultimate purpose of the memorial is our national interest,” del Rosario said. “It is about defending what is legitimately ours.”
The disputes have periodically erupted into dangerous confrontations, sparking tensions and straining ties.
In the latest incident, a Philippine government ship slipped past a Chinese coast guard blockade Saturday and brought food and fresh troops to a navy ship marooned on Second Thomas Shoal. The ship is used as a base by Filipino troops to bolster the country’s territorial claims in the area.
The mission was accomplished peacefully despite a radioed warning by the Chinese to the Filipinos to stop or “take full responsibility for the consequences of your action.”
On March 9, Chinese vessels blocked a resupply mission to the shoal, called Ayungin by the Philippines.
Solicitor General Francis Jardeleza said the Philippines last month amended its statement of claim to include Ayungin Shoal as subject of arbitration. He said that the shoal is within the Philippines’ 200 nautical miles Exclusive Economic Zone, and that the country has sovereign rights and jurisdiction over it.