Hague tribunal could rule on South China Sea by mid-2016, Philippines says

Reuters, AFP-JIJI, Bloomberg

The chief counsel for the Philippines in its Hague tribunal case against China over their competing claims in the South China Sea says a final ruling could come as early as next June.

Paul Reichler said Friday he also believed that in spite of China’s rejection of the case, international pressure would eventually oblige Beijing to comply with a ruling against it.

In a legal setback for Beijing on Thursday, the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled that it has jurisdiction to hear some territorial claims that the Philippines has filed against China over disputed areas in the South China Sea.

Reichler called this a “major victory” and said he expected that an oral hearing on the merits of the Philippines’ case would be held by the end of the year and that a final ruling would be made within six months of that.

“We are talking about a final judgment being issued right in the middle of 2016, perhaps June of 2016, but I am only speculating at this point,” he said.

“For the Philippines, having now established that there is jurisdiction for the tribunal to consider its claim … leaves us very optimistic that the ultimate outcome will be very successful,” Reichler said.

Manila filed the case in 2013 to seek a ruling on its right to exploit the South China Sea waters in its exclusive economic zone of 200 nautical miles (370 km) as allowed under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

“It has not been a good week for China,” said Alexander Sullivan, an associate fellow at the Center for a New American Security in Washington. “China’s been cognizant of the possibility both that there would be some sort of demonstration of resolve to uphold international maritime law and that international arbitration would move ahead. It partly explains why they moved so quickly on the land reclamation.”

China has boycotted the proceedings and rejects the court’s authority in the case. It argues that the case is about sovereignty and that the court cannot rule on it.

“We will not participate and we will not accept the arbitration,” Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin told reporters in Beijing on Friday. “The ruling or the result of arbitration will not affect China’s position. It won’t affect China’s sovereignty rights and jurisdiction in the South China Sea. Our rights will not be undermined.”

Beijing claims sovereignty over almost the entire South China Sea, dismissing claims to parts of it from Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei.

“What China has done thus far is to be incredibly vague about its claims,” said Sullivan. “No one really knows if they are claiming all of the waters within the nine-dash line” — a line without precise coordinates that was drawn on a 1947 map — “or whether they are claiming certain rather limited maritime entitlements of the land features within that zone.”

Sullivan said the ruling may determine that the most expansive version of China’s assertion is illegitimate, raising the possibility that China may withdraw its nine-dash-line claim before the arbitration court makes a ruling and resubmit dozens of separate claims for maritime features and the entitlements that go with them.

Reichler said it is “inevitable” that China will one day have to seek some accommodation with a judgment against it if it wants to be seen as a state that respects international law.

Also Friday, the European Union sided with Washington over a U.S. patrol in the South China Sea, a move that may affect Brussels’ discussions with Beijing at the coming week’s Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) of foreign affairs ministers. The gathering in Luxembourg will bring together all 28 EU countries and 21 Asian nations, including China, Vietnam and the Philippines.

On Tuesday, a U.S. warship sailed within 12 nautical miles (22 km) of one of Beijing’s man-made islands in the contested Spratly archipelago, triggering a sharp reaction from China.

“The U.S. are exercising their freedom of navigation,” a senior EU official said at a briefing, chiming with the U.S. line.

A U.S. Navy spokesman had said that the patrol was part of U.S. operations for freedom of navigation that are meant to “protect the rights, freedoms, and lawful uses of the sea and airspace guaranteed to all nations under international law.”

The EU is concerned about Beijing’s plans to build new islands in contested waters, the EU official said, a statement that may be welcomed by other Asian nations opposing China’s claims to almost all of one of the world’s busiest sea lanes.

“Whilst not taking a position on claims, the EU is committed to a maritime order based upon the principles of international law, in particular as reflected in the United Nations Convention on the law of the Sea,” an EU foreign affairs spokesman said in a statement.

The EU has been nursing relations with Beijing, hoping to attract Chinese funds to relaunch the bloc’s sluggish economy, and has been negotiating a bilateral investment and trade deal.

In defiance of Washington, EU governments have also decided to join the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB).