MANILA – A United Nations-backed arbitral tribunal has ordered China to respond to a pleading filed by the Philippines in connection with the dispute over the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).
The tribunal, based in The Hague, Netherlands, ordered China to submit not later than December 15 this year its counter-argument to a memorial filed by the Philippines.
This marks a development in the dispute that has strained ties between the Philippines and the Asian giant.
''In Procedural Order No. 2, the Arbitral Tribunal fixes 15 December 2014 as the date for China to submit its Counter-Memorial responding to the Philippines’ Memorial,'' the arbitral tribunal said in a June 3 statement.
On March 30, the Philippines submitted its memorial to the tribunal. The more than 4,000-page document discusses matters relating to the jurisdiction of the tribunal, the admissibility of the Philippines' claim over the dispute waters, as well as the merits of the dispute.
The arbitral tribunal said it ''has been mindful of its obligation under the Convention to determine its own procedure while 'assuring to each party a full opportunity to be heard and to present its case.'''
The ''Convention'' refers to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which addresses matters such as sovereignty, rights of usage in maritime zones, and navigational rights.
The UNCLOS, of which China is a signatory, grants coastal states a 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone with respect to natural resources and certain economic activities.
China still snubbing proceedings
The arbitral tribunal said before adopting Procedural Order No. 2, it provided each party the opportunity to comment on the draft and schedules.
The tribunal said it received a note verbale last May 21 from China in response to the order. In its note verbale, China did not change its position not to participate in the proceedings, saying ''it does not accept the arbitration initiated by the Philippines'' and that the note verbale ''shall not be regarded as China's acceptance of or participation in the proceedings."
The Philippines, on the other hand, submitted its comments on May 29.
The five-member arbitral tribunal is chaired by Judge Thomas A. Mensah of Ghana. Its other members are Judge Jean-Pierre Cot of France, Judge Stanislaw Pawlak of Poland, Professor Alfred Soons of the Netherlands, and Judge Rüdiger Wolfrum of Germany. The court of arbitration acts as the Registry in the proceedings.
The court of arbitration is an intergovernmental organization established by the 1899 Hague Convention on the Pacific Settlement of International Disputes. It facilitates arbitration, conciliation, fact-finding and other dispute resolution proceedings among various combinations of states, state entities, intergovernmental organizations, and private parties.
West PH Sea tensions
The Philippines has argued that it has jurisdiction over parts of the West Philippine Sea, which are within its EEZ. It is protesting China's incursion in the disputed waters.
The Philippines said going to the international court has been its last resort after exhausting all the means to resolve the conflict with China.
The Philippines wants to settle the dispute using a multilateral approach, while China wants to deal with the South China Sea claimants bilaterally - a strategy some experts believe is self-serving on the part of the Asian superpower, given its military and economic might.
China has been accused by the Philippines of taking unilateral actions in the disputed waters, such as its move to block a resupply mission in Ayungin Shoal and the reclamation of land in Mabini Reef for a possible airstrip.
On the western edge of South China Sea, China has also been accused by Vietnam of deploying an oil rig in a portion of the sea that both the Asian countries claim.
The deployment of the oil rig has sparked nationalist protests in Vietnam, even resulting in the deaths of several Chinese nationals.
China is also embroiled in a bitter dispute with Japan over the ownership of certain Japanese-administered uninhabited islands in the East China Sea. The two Asian giants have been playing cat-and-mouse in the disputed waters, raising the possibility of a miscalculation.
Japan, United States and Australia have called out China for its ''destabilizing'' actions in the disputed waters.
Aside from Vietnam and the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also claim parts of South China Sea, which straddles vital shipping lanes and is believed to hold vast oil and gas reserves.