Manila seeks early tribunal ruling over sea dispute with China

Protesters hold anti-China placards and shout slogans during a rally in front of the building housing Chinese consular offices in Manila on April 2, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP 
Protesters hold anti-China placards and shout slogans during a rally in front of the building housing Chinese consular offices in Manila on April 2, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP 

MANILA (REUTERS) - The Philippines said it will ask an international arbitration tribunal to make a speedy ruling on its dispute with China over exploiting waters in the South China Sea after Beijing refused to take part in the proceedings.

Foreign Minister Albert del Rosario said Manila might also ask the United Nations arbitral court in The Hague to issue an order that would halt Chinese reclamation work in contested waters, such as on Johnson South Reef and Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratly archipelago.

Manila is seeking confirmation at the tribunal of its right to exploit waters in its 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone as allowed under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

Earlier this month, China rejected a notice from the tribunal which gave Beijing until Dec 15 to reply to the first international case filed against it over the potentially energy-rich waters.

"Because China is not participating and because the situation is getting worse every day in the South China Sea, I am asking our (legal team) in the US if we can present a request to the tribunal to hasten the process," Mr del Rosario said late on Tuesday.

China has said all along it will not participate, preferring a bilateral approach to resolving conflicts.

In March, Manila made its formal submission to the tribunal. China claims 90 per cent of the South China Sea. The Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei and Taiwan also have claims over the waters, where about US$5 trillion (S$6.3 trillion) in ship-borne trade passes every year.

Mr Del Rosario said China was rushing construction activity before the tribunal handed down its ruling, adding the Philippines could ask the tribunal to order China to halt such work in disputed areas while Manila's complaint was being heard.

Legal experts, however, have said any decision from the tribunal would be effectively unenforceable as there was no body under UNCLOS to police such rulings.

Mr Del Rosario has called for a moratorium on all activities in the South China Sea that could escalate tensions, proposing more dialogue between China and the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean).

Beijing said on Monday that China had a right to do what it wanted on islands that were Chinese territory, and criticised the Philippines for what it called Manila's illegal occupation of some of them and construction work there.