Manila wants KL, Hanoi to challenge China claims

THE Philippines has pleaded with Malaysia and Vietnam to back its case before an international tribunal challenging China's claims over the South China Sea.

"We wish that Malaysia and Vietnam will join us… in our case or file their own cases," the Philippine government's chief counsel, Mr Francis Jardeleza, said yesterday during a roundtable discussion at the University of the Philippines.

He added: "We have been hoping that those two countries will not only inter-plead, but join us. It will not be fatal if they are not there, but it will be useful if they are there."

He is leading a suit before the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (Itlos) challenging China's claims over islands that the Philippines believes is within its jurisdiction.

Manila is set to file on March 30 a 100-page memorial - essentially a memorandum enumerating its arguments - with Itlos. It is anticipating a ruling from the tribunal by 2015.

Mr Jardeleza said the protests filed by Malaysia and Vietnam in 2009 against China's so-called nine-dash line - which lays claims to almost the entire South China Sea using historical precedents - would be included in the memorial.

The Philippines is likewise contesting this nine-dash line in its case before Itlos, saying it "has no basis in law" as it covers a wide swathe that extends more than 200 nautical miles from the nearest landmass in China. International maritime law stipulates that a state can claim waters up to 200 nautical miles from its coasts as its exclusive economic zone.

Mr Jardeleza said Manila's "memorial" would also cover "harassments" by China's coast guard as well as civilian ships of Filipinos fishing off waters within the Philippines' exclusive economic zone.

An incident on Jan 27 involving a Chinese ship using water cannon to drive away two Filipino fishing boats that strayed near the contested Scarborough Shoal was being considered as part of the memorial, he added.

Manila has lodged a protest over this incident, but Beijing said its coast guard was provoked.

Mr Jardeleza told reporters that the Philippines would file its memorial regardless of the outcome of talks set for mid-March in Singapore between China and Asean on a legally binding code of conduct to manage disputes in the South China Sea. "Our position is (the talks) do not foreclose our filing of the arbitration," he said.

China has refused to participate in the arbitration proceedings with Itlos, saying the Philippines' case "has no legal grounds", and it is widely expected to reject any ruling from Itlos.

Mr Jardeleza expressed optimism that China would be swayed by international pressure if Itlos rules in the Philippines' favour.

"There will be repercussions if China disobeys a ruling by a neutral tribunal. China will have to face the wrath and displeasure of the international community, but we know China would like to be considered a member of good standing within the international community," he said.