Hague court takes up Philippines dispute in South China Sea

In a blow to China, the tribunal agreed to hear a case in which the Philippines has challenged China's broad claims over disputed areas of the South China Sea. 

Ritchie B. Tongo/REUTERS/File
An aerial photo taken through a glass window of a Philippine military plane shows the alleged ongoing land reclamation by China on Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, west of Palawan, Philippines, in this May 11, 2015 file photo.

An international tribunal at The Hague will take on a case between China and the Philippines over disputed territory in South China Sea, the first time China has had to face legal scrutiny over its assertiveness in the resource-rich waterway.

The Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague issued the ruling Thursday, despite China's objections that the tribunal has little authority to review such a case. Chinese officials say they will not participate, preferring to settle matters on a one-on-one basis, an approach many analysts say gives China greater clout over its smaller neighbors. 

"The attempts to attain more illegal interests by initiating arbitration unilaterally is impractical and will lead nowhere," said Zhu Haiquan, spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in Washington. "China is committed to resolving relevant disputes through negotiation and consultation with parties directly involved. This is the only right choice."

China asserts sovereignty over much of the South China Sea, and dismisses territorial claims in the area by the Philippines as well as Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Brunei.

In the case, filed in 2013, the Philippines argues that China's broad claims "do not conform with the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and should be declared invalid. The Philippines also asserts that some Chinese-occupied reefs and shoals do not generate, or create a claim to, territorial waters."

The Hague court indicated that it did not need China's participation to continue with the trial because both because both China and the Philippines are signatories of UNCLOS (the US has not signed the convention.) It said it expected to reach a decision next year. The case is being closely watched by the United States, a Philippines treaty ally. 

The US drew Chinese ire Tuesday when it sailed the USS Lassen, a guided missile destroyer, within 12 nautical miles of reefs that China has built into islands and over which it claims sovereignty, Reuters reports. 

The US says that it was sailing through international waters, stressing that its naval exercises were meant to "protect the rights, freedoms, and lawful uses of the sea and airspace guaranteed to all nations under international law," CNN cited a US Navy spokesman as saying.  US officials said it would be the first of regular "freedom of navigation" patrols in the area.

In a videoconference two days after the sail-by, China's naval commander told his US counterpart that a minor incident could spark war in the South China Sea if the United States did not stop.

"If the United States continues with these kinds of dangerous, provocative acts, there could well be a seriously pressing situation between frontline forces from both sides on the sea and in the air, or even a minor incident that sparks war," China's Navy Chief Admiral Wu Shengli was quoted as saying in a statement released by China.

Despite the dispute, the US and China have agreed to proceed with scheduled naval port visits and diplomatic exchanges. Nonetheless, The New York Times reports China will continue seeking out ways to edge out the US from the South China Sea:

...But there is little doubt that China is thinking big about how these islands could limit America’s military options, about how control over these waters could give it leverage over key trade routes and about how making the United States look hapless could strengthen its diplomatic clout in the region.

“They have a game plan; it is very clear what it is,” said Christopher K. Johnson, senior adviser on China at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington at a recent seminar. “Sometimes, I think it is easy to get lost in the weeds on what has been built on which island.”

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