An international tribunal has ruled that it has the power to hear the Philippines' case against China's claims over nearly all of the South China Sea, a move analysts say will likely force Beijing to dig in deeper instead of sitting down to talk.
In a ruling released late on Thursday, the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague determined that it has jurisdiction over seven issues that Manila raised in a 4,000-page plea it submitted in March last year.
Reviewing the claims submitted by the Philippines, the tribunal has rejected China's argument that the "dispute is actually about sovereignty over the islands in the South China Sea and therefore beyond the tribunal's jurisdiction", the five-man tribunal said in a nine-page summary of its ruling.
Manila's legal team expects the PCA to rule on the merits of the Philippines' case in six months.
This is the second time in a week that China's sovereignty claims in the South China Sea have been challenged. Earlier this week, a US guided-missile destroyer sailed within 12 nautical miles of at least one of China's man-made islands in the Spratlys, as Washington asserted freedom of navigation in one of the world's busiest waterways.
The downside, of course, is that the arbitration proceedings may further embitter bilateral ties with China and prevent much-needed talks on confidence-building measures.
POLITICAL ANALYST RICHARD JAVAD HEYDARIAN, of De La Salle University
In the case before the PCA, Manila accuses Beijing of violating international laws by claiming areas that are 1,611km from its borders.
In recent years, China, citing historical records and ancient maps, has reasserted its claims over nearly all of the South China Sea under the so-called "nine-dash line" that overlaps with territories claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.
China has refused to take part in the arbitration proceedings.
But in a position paper, it said the "essence" of the Philippines' case is about sovereignty, which is beyond the arbitration court's scope. It insisted the PCA lacks the mandate to determine who owns the islands, reefs, shoals, atolls, lagoons and other land features in the South China Sea.
The Philippines, on the other hand, argued that its case is not about sovereignty, but a plea to have an international court declare China's nine-dash line as inconsistent with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos), which outlines a system of territory and economic zones that can be claimed from features such as shoals, islets and reefs.
The arbitration court said Unclos allows it to determine whether seven reefs in the Spratly archipelago in the southern half of the South China Sea that China has transformed into islands can be considered part of Chinese territories, considering their distance from the Chinese mainland.
A ruling on these reefs' "territorial entitlements" will likely involve discussions on the validity of China's nine-dash line.
President Benigno Aquino welcomed the court's decision and told reporters: "Who wouldn't be happy to see that what really prevailed here was the rule of law."
An unidentified senior US defence official was quoted by Reuters as saying: "This demonstrates the relevance of international law to the territorial conflicts in the South China Sea."
Experts, however, said while Manila may have scored a legal victory, Beijing is unlikely to back down.
"The downside, of course, is that the arbitration proceedings may further embitter bilateral ties with China and prevent much-needed talks on confidence-building measures," said political analyst Richard Javad Heydarian of De La Salle University.
Defence analyst Jose Antonio Custodio said China "has little regard for international opinion" and "will continue to ram through that narrative... by continuing to harass us".