MANILA – A tribunal in The Hague has asked China to defend its territorial claims in the South China Sea by submitting evidence within six months, despite Beijing’s refusal to respond to a Philippines legal challenge to its vast claims in the region.
China has refused to join the arbitration process initiated by the Philippines last year. On Wednesday, Philippines officials called for China to join the process as a peaceful and durable solution to the ongoing territorial disputes, which have flared in recent years and sparked alarm across Asia and beyond.
The U.N. Permanent Court of Arbitration issued a statement Tuesday giving China until Dec. 15 to submit written arguments and evidence against the Philippines complaint, which questioned the validity of China’s so-called nine-dash claim. That refers to a rough Chinese demarcation on its official maps of its territorial claims over virtually the entire South China Sea.
Aside from China and the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan have claims that overlap in parts of the resources-rich South China Sea, with Beijing saying it has sovereignty over virtually all of it.
China’s rows with the Philippines and Vietnam have worsened recently, especially after it deployed an oil rig last month in waters claimed by Hanoi, sparking violent anti-China protests in Vietnam.
There have been fears that the territorial conflicts in the region, including a dispute between Japan and China in the East China Sea, could spark Asia’s next armed conflict, although analysts say a major fight is unlikely given fears that major instability could spell disaster for currently bullish economies in the region.
After filing a complaint early last year, the Philippines submitted written arguments and evidence against China’s claims on March 30.
The five-judge tribunal asked China to respond, but said the Chinese government sent a notice last month reiterating that “it does not accept the arbitration initiated by the Philippines” and that the notice it sent “shall not be regarded as China’s acceptance of or participation in the proceedings.”
The tribunal said it would continue with the Philippine complaint without China’s involvement.
“The arbitral tribunal will determine the further course of the proceedings, including the need for, and scheduling of any other written submissions and hearings, at an appropriate later stage, after seeking the views of the parties,” it said.