MANILA — China’s snub of the Philippine arbitral claim on the West Philippine Sea and its slew of building projects on disputed reefs in the area are “a serious and belligerent violation of” the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), of which it is a member, according to an outspoken Filipino legal academic at an international law conference in Tokyo.
Speaking at the 5th Annual Meeting of the Japan Society of International law at the Chuo University Law School last Sunday, University of the Philippines professor Harry L. Roque Jr. said that China’s refusal to participate in the arbitration and its unilateral acts in building artificial islands in the disputed maritime area of the Spratly’s constitutes a “serious breach of the UNCLOS since as a party to the Convention, China agreed to refer all matters involving interpretation and application of the UNCLOS to the compulsory and binding dispute settlement procedure of the Convention”.
Roque, who is also Director of the UP Law Center’s Institute of international Legal Studies, said that the international community took a very long time to agree on the provisions of UNCLOS because all countries of the world wanted the Convention to be the “constitution for the seas”.
“By prohibiting reservations and by adopting all provision on the basis of consensus, it was the intention of the world community to do away with the use of force and unilateral acts in the resolution of all disputes arising from maritime territory,” said Roque.
Debunking the view expressed recently by Judge Xue Hanquin, the Chinese Judge in the International Court of Justice that states that made declarations when they ratified the UNCLOS, China included, are deemed to have opted out of the dispute settlement procedure of the Convention, Roque noted that China’s subsequent reservations only as to specific subject matters from the jurisdiction of the dispute settlement procedures proves that China agreed to be bound by the procedure. “This means that China is under a very clear obligation to participate in the proceedings, if only to dispute the jurisdiction of the Tribunal,” Roque said.
More worrisome, according to Roque, is China’s recent resort to the use of force in bolstering its claim to the disputed territories.
It has been reported recently that China has been building artificial islands in Johnson South Reef and expanding its artificial island in Fiery Cross reef, and deploying its naval forces to ward off any opposition.
“These constructions are happening in the face of China’s snub of the arbitral proceedings which precisely impugns China’s legal rights to do so. Clearly, China’s conduct is not only illegal as prohibited use of force, but is also contemptuous of the proceedings”, Roque said.
The Philippines is the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea to declare that China’s nine-dash lines is illegal since it is not sanctioned by the UNCLOS. The Philippine claim also asked the Hague -based arbitral tribunal that four “low-water elevations,” so-called because they are only visible during low tide, and where China has build artificial islands, be declared as part of the continental shelf of the Philippines, and that the waters outside of the 12 nautical miles of Panatag shoal be declared as part of the Philippine Exclusive Economic Zone.
Roque belied China’s claim that the waters within the nine-dash lines are generated by land territory and hence, the controversy cannot be resolved under the UNCLOS. “Clearly, the three specific prayers of the Philippines involve interpretation and application of specific provisions to UNCLOS relating to internal waters, territorial sea, Exclusive Economic Zones, islands, and low tide elevations. While the Spratlys dispute without a doubt also involves land territory, these are not the subjects of the Philippines claim, Roque added.
The Chinese academic in the conference, Prof. Zhang Xinjun of Tsinghua University, characterized the Philippine arbitral claim as a “mixed claim” because it involves both claims to sovereignty arising from land territory and not just purely maritime territory. This, he explained, is why the UNCLOS arbitral tribunal lacks jurisdiction over the Philippine claim. He likened the Philippine proceeding to that initiated by Mauritius against the United Kingdom. In this case, while it is also pending, the UK has argued that the dispute settlement proceedings of UNCLOS should not apply because the disputed maritime territory is generated by land territory.
The Japanese academic, Prof. NIishimoto Kentaro of Tohoku University, on the other hand, expressed reservations whether the Philippines could prevail in impugning China’s title to all four islands, which the Philippines claimed should form part of the Philippine continental shelf. At least two of these islands are within the 200 nautical miles of Ito Iba Island, currently under the control of Taiwan, and thus may not form part of the Philippine continental shelf, according to the Japanese academic.
He supported however the Philippines position on the nine-dash lines arguing that in seeking a declaration of nullity of these lines, the Philippines was not engaged in maritime delimitation, but in an action for a declaration of rights, which is an issue of interpretation and application of the UNCLOS. He characterized the Philippines position against the Nine-Dash lines as “very strong”.
Japan is also engaged in its own territorial dispute with China over Senkaku Island.