The Philippines welcomed Friday a decision by an international tribunal in The Hague to hear a case filed against China over disputed parts of the West Philippine Sea/South China Sea.
The ruling by the five judges of the Permanent Court of Arbitration issued Thursday, three months after the Philippine legal team argued its case in the Netherlands, enables the court to finally proceed to formal deliberations on Manila’s complaint that challenges the legality of Beijing’s assertion that its ownership of nearly the entire South China Sea is “indisputable” and “historical”.
A Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs statement issued Friday welcomed a decision by the Arbitral Tribunal that it had jurisdiction over the case.
“We look forward to the Tribunal’s further hearing on the merits,” it added.
In what the Philippines saw as its first legal victory in the case, which was filed in Jan. 2013, the tribunal said it will be holding hearings soon and a final ruling on the case will be handed down in 2016.
The Tribunal, in its 151-page decision, also dismissed China’s argument that Manila’s case is beyond the scope of the court’s mandate.
The Tribunal decision said it has immediate jurisdiction on seven out of 15 points raised by the Philippines against China – called “submissions” in legal parlance – but postponed for “later consideration” its jurisdiction ruling on eight other issues raised by Manila, saying it will be decided on as it conducts a formal hearing on the merits of the case.
“The Tribunal will convene a further hearing on the merits of the Philippines’ claims. In consultation with the Parties, the Tribunal has provisionally set the dates for the merits hearing,” the ruling said.
“The Tribunal expects that it will render its Award on the merits and remaining jurisdictional issues in 2016.”
China claims almost all of the South China Sea including a cluster of islands, reefs and atolls further south called the Spratlys.
Other claimants are Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan. Parts of the South China Sea that the Philippines’ claims fall under its exclusive economic zone have ben renamed the West Philippine Sea by the Philippine government.
All claimants – bar Brunei – have stationed military troops in their territories in the vast area, said to be sitting atop huge oil and gas deposits.
In the case filed before the Tribunal, the Philippines did not argue the issue of who owns the contested islands in the West Philippine Sea/South China Sea, but has asked the arbitral tribunal to declare its features as “rocks” and not islands.
Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS), to which the Philippines and China are both signatories, rocks do not generate maritime entitlement beyond 12 miles.
The Philippines claimed that a part of the maritime territory being claimed by China sits within the Philippines’ 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone.
“We’re not asking the court to say who owns Panatag shoal. We are arguing that they are within our EEZ and therefore under the rules of UNCLOS, we have exclusive rights to fish within that area,” former Philippines Solicitor General and incumbent Supreme Court Associate Justice Francis Jardeleza said in a previous interview.
Panatag – also known as Scarborough Shoal/Reef, Democracy Reef, Huangyan Island, and Bajo de Masinloc – is located between the Macclesfield Bank – claimed by China and Taiwan – and the Philippino Luzon Island in the Sea.
Territorial claims are normally the jurisdiction of another body, the International Court of Justice (ICJ), but the ICJ only entertains cases if all parties in the dispute participate.
China has refused to do so.