Jul 262014
The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) arbitration case against China is “not about who owns what” but rather to make clear the entitlements due the Philippines, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said on Saturday.

“It is not about determining who owns what in the territories in the South China Sea. That is not our case. Our case is a interpretation of the law, clarification, and validation… Our aim is for the tribunal to say that the nine-dash line is without basis under UNCLOS,” DFA spokesman Charles Jose said in a forum at the University of the Philippines.

He added that given that China has said it will not take part in the arbitration proceedings, it will take the tribunal less time to render a decision.

Jose said the tribunal might call a hearing after December 15, the deadline given China to respond to the Philippines’ case.

“The Tribunal will determine the further course of the proceedings, including the need for, and scheduling of any other written submissions and hearings, at an appropriate later stage,” the DFA had said in a July 2014 newsletter on developments in the arbitration case.

Assistant Secretary Jose said that in that possible hearing after December 15, the five-member tribunal may ask the Philippines about details of its claim and other matters for clarification.

DFA Secretary Albert del Rosario said on June 17 that with China opting out of the proceedings, “perhaps we could get a quicker resolution from the tribunal…I am asking our retainers in the US if we can present a request to the tribunal if they can hasten the process.”

The Philippines’ petition, referred to as a “Memorial”, was submitted on March 30, 2014. The entire Memorial consists of 4,000 pages and has ten volumes.

Solicitor-General Francis Jardeleza leads the inter-agency legal team handling the case.

Jose said that while the case is pending, resorting to backchanneling would not be wise because it may weaken the country’s position before the tribunal.

In 2012, Senator Antonio Trillanes IV revealed that he was the backchannel negotiator when a flotilla of Chinese ships took positions near and around Panatag Shoal.

On September 21, 2012, President Aquino said, “Ang tanda ko diyan, kinontak tayo ni Senator Trillanes at tila nasa China siya at that time. At nilapitan siya, tinanong ‘yung posibilidad kung pupuwede siyang maging backchannel [negotiator] nga.”

Aquino said Trillanes, a former Navy officer, was instrumental in decreasing the number of Chinese boats near Panatag.
“‘Yun naman siguro pwede nating i-credit doon sa efforts rin at efforts ni Senator Trillanes,” Aquino said.
He said before Trillanes came into the picture, there were more than 48 Chinese vessels in the disputed territory.

UNCLOS parties bound to heed ruling

Meanwhile, Jose said that since both the Philippines and China are signatories of the UNCLOS, both are legally- and morally-bound to accept the decision [on the case].”

“Once we get the ruling, we have to sit down with China. By then, we will be talking from a better position because we have the moral and legal victory. We need the rule of the court to be able to say with clarity (what are our) maritime entitlements,” he continued.

Ownership of the disputed areas is not part the arbitration, though it will delineate which areas are open for joint or exclusive development.

Arbitration was the Philippines’ last option in its negotiations with China. Prior to launching a case at the UN tribunal, at least 15 bilateral meetings between both countries were allegedly conducted, but Chinese demands made negotiations difficult.

“When we started bilateral negotiations, the pre-conditon was you need to accept [China’s] indesputable claim of sovereignty over the South China Sea. If you do that, what else will you be negotiating?,” Jose said.

He added, “They said in their statements they will compromise because this is a co-issue for them. Compromise is a key component of negotiations. (But) what will we be negotiating? They have a pre-condition, and they won’t compromise.”

Working with China through the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has deescalated tensions between the two countries.

“China said it will not (accept the decision). If China wants to be seen as a responsible member of the international community, I think it is also in its best interest to operate within the established order (and) the established order after the arbitral tribunal is the ruling,” he explained.

Cultural and economic relations

While the South China Sea remains a delicate topic, Jose said cultural and economic relations between both countries remain unaffected by the affair.

He said the South China Sea, part of which Manila calls the West Philippine Sea, is “not the sum total of our relations with China.”

“Our foreign service posts in China continue to conduct cultural activities (because) in the 2011 state visit both sides agreed to designate the years 2012 to 2013 as the years of friendly exchanges (even) at the height of the dispute. (It’s) to show that it is business as usual while we deal with this problem separately ,” he explained.

Chinese Ambassador Zhao Jianhua told Filipino businessmen on June 2 that economic relations between the two countries remained healthy, a fact recognized by Jose, who said there are more Philippine investments in China than Chinese investments in the Philippines.

But Jose said Chinese inspectors are still strict with goods from the Philippines. These measures have yet to be officially lifted by China since they were imposed in 2012.

The assistant secretary, who had been attached to various missions around China for the last 11 years, admitted public opinion may have changed due to the dispute.

He said, “It was a bit difficult during the time I was in Shanghai because relations within the two countries were not at their best. There’s a palpable difference in how both sides carried the relationship.” — JDS, GMA News

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