A United Nations court yesterday opened hearings on a Philippine case seeking to declare as invalid China's claims over much of the disputed South China Sea.
This comes after the Philippine navy found a large steel marker with Chinese inscriptions and hundreds of yellow buoys near a vast underwater plateau where the Philippines has long explored for oil and gas, Reuters reported.
In a message sent from the Netherlands, President Benigno Aquino's spokesman Abigail Valte said the Philippines' American lawyer, Mr Paul Reichler, began presenting arguments yesterday to show that the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) has jurisdiction over Manila's case against China.
The court is helmed by Judge Thomas Mensah from Ghana, who was with the International Maritime Organisation for two decades.
The other judges are Mr Rudiger Wolfrum, Germany; Mr Stanislaw Pawlak, Poland; Mr Jean-Pierre Cot, France; and Mr Alfred Soons, the Netherlands.
By the time we complete this plan, we will have complete coverage of the South China Sea.
MAJOR-GENERAL RAUL DEL ROSARIO
China is not taking part in the case. But in its position paper, it said the "essence" of the Philippine case is sovereignty, which is beyond the PCA's scope. It said the tribunal lacks the mandate to determine who owns islands, reefs, shoals, atolls and other rocky outcrops in the South China Sea.
The Philippines, on the other hand, said its case is not about sovereignty, but a plea to have a UN court declare China's "nine-dash line" as inconsistent with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos).
Citing historical records and maps, China claims nearly all of the South China Sea. It formally marked the boundaries of these claims in 1953 with a nine-dash line that protrudes from China's southern Hainan island and loops towards Indonesia. The line overlaps with territories claimed by Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.
The Philippines contends that under Unclos, the nine-dash line is invalid, as it stretches as far as 1,611km from the nearest Chinese land mass. Philippine Foreign Ministry spokesman Charles Jose said that if the PCA favours China and decides it has no jurisdiction, "then that is the end". That outcome will shut the door to any internationally brokered settlement, unless China decides to participate, he added.
The Philippines and the other claimants will then have to either enter into bilateral talks with Beijing, or dig in and hope China does not muscle its way into any more of their claims in the South China Sea.
Fresh reports, meanwhile, said the Philippine navy found in May this year a floating steel marker with Chinese inscriptions and buoys "as far as the eye could see" near Reed Bank, an underwater plateau with an area of more than 8,000 sq km. At its easternmost point, it lies just 148km from the main Philippine island of Luzon.
A senior military officer said the buoys were probably put there as a tether line for Chinese fishermen.
Reuters reported that a boatload of sailors tried to remove the buoys, but they were chased away by a Chinese patrol ship. The Philippines plans to ramp up military spending over the next 13 years, earmarking over US$20 billion (S$27 billion) to modernise its forces with submarines, frigates, jet fighters, surveillance planes and missile systems.
"By the time we complete this plan, we will have complete coverage of the South China Sea," Major-General Raul del Rosario told Reuters.