THE Philippines pressed ahead yesterday with its formal plea before a United Nations tribunal contesting China's vast claims over the South China Sea, amid another tense stand-off at a disputed rocky outcrop and a fresh barrage of threats from Beijing.
In a 4,000-page "memorial" - diplomatic speak for "memorandum" - sent to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, Manila alleges that China's nine-dash line claims areas far beyond its borders.
That line encloses 90 per cent of the 3.5 million sq km South China Sea and spreads deep into territories claimed not just by the Philippines, but also by Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan.
Manila maintains that the areas in the South China Sea that Beijing insists are parts of its territories extend as far as 870 nautical miles (1,611km) from the nearest Chinese shore, violating the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
It is asking the international tribunal to recognise its exclusive economic zone, which extends 200 nautical miles from Philippine shores, overlapping many of the shoals, reefs and islets that have been the sites of tense stand-offs between Manila and Beijing.
"It is about defending what is legitimately ours," Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said at a news conference yesterday.
The memorial consists of 4,000 pages spread over 10 volumes that contain Manila's arguments, evidence and maps to support its case against China. The Philippines first filed its case against China in January last year.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei, who had earlier warned the Philippines against proceeding with the case, said yesterday that China will not accept international arbitration on the South China Sea.
He urged the Philippines to stick to the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea and return to bilateral talks in resolving disputes.
The tribunal is now expected to give Beijing time to reconsider its refusal to participate and submit oral arguments against Manila's memorial. It may also embark on an ocular inspection of the contested areas, and then it can begin its hearings.
Solicitor-General Francis Jardeleza, the government's chief lawyer who is leading the case, has said the earliest the five-member tribunal can issue a ruling is mid-2016.
Legal experts say that while legally binding, any ruling will effectively be unenforceable, as there is no peacekeeping force that can compel China to obey it.
Still, Mr Paul Reichler, the Philippines' lead counsel in the case, said losing parties comply "at least 95 per cent" of the time.
On Saturday, four Chinese coast guard vessels tried to block two Philippine navy boats sent to re-supply marines stationed on the BRP Sierra Madre, a ship Manila ran aground in 1999 on the Second Thomas Shoal to stake its claim. The Philippine boats managed to reach the grounded ship, but not until after two Chinese ships cut off their paths twice.
On March 9, China turned away a Philippine re-supply boat. In December, the Chinese coast guard used water cannon to drive away Philippine boats at another contested islet, Scarborough Shoal.