Former arbitration judge says states must 'sit down' on South China Sea dispute

Willard Cheng, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Nov 18 2021 09:29 PM

A Philippine flag via Handout, Philippine Coast Guard/File
A Philippine flag is seen on a Philippine Coast Guard-manned vessel as it conducts patrols at Whitsun Reef, South China Sea, in a handout photo distributed by the Philippine Coast Guard on April 15. Handout, Philippine Coast Guard/File

MANILA - A judge who was a member of the 2016 arbitral tribunal that heard Manila's complaints against Beijing over the South China Sea has urged all states in the region to sit down and seek ways to calm down tensions among them.

"Whoever will take the lead should ask for establishing such a round table to seek ways out of this growing tension which is existing in the South China Sea," said Rüdiger Wolfrum said in a Department of Foreign Affairs forum in collaboration with the German Embassy in Manila on Thursday.

Wolfrum, a member of the United Nations five-man arbitral tribunal that favored the Philippines' complaint against China's territorial claims in the South China Sea in 2016, also said the media should also tone down its language as politicians strive to “return to international cooperation”.

"Therefore, media should tune everything down and the politicians should return to the international cooperation which international law is all about,” the German expert added.

His statement came hours after National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. confirmed that Chinese Coast Guard vessels on Nov. 16 blocked and used water cannons against Filipino supply boats that were transporting food supplies to Filipino military personnel based in Ayungin Shoal in the West Philippine Sea.

Parts of the West Philippine Sea, which is located within the South China Sea, are being claimed by Beijing even though it is part of the Philippines' exclusive economic zone.

Wolfrum, former president of the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), said the disputed maritime waters is a "closed sea and therefore these states should have the first say how to organize and manage the South China Sea."

“The question of damages, of violations or whatsoever, should be part and parcel of negotiations to be initiated and still to be undertaken,” he said.

He advised against filing a new or supplementary case against China before UNCLOS amid China’s defiance of the 2016 arbitral award, urging instead that diplomatic efforts be pursued.

“I should first exhaust all efforts of all states of this region to come to a consensual agreement before even considering a new case. A new case would only aggravate probably the situation and would lead at the end of the day to nothing,” Wolfrum said.

Asked if he would encourage joint development of the waters among claimants, Wolfrum said the path taken by Timor Leste and Australia can be followed where a joint venture system can be pursued while setting aside sovereignty and sovereign rights with parties just agreeing on the distribution of the benefits.

“I believe that could be done also in the South China Sea to agree on what could be done together, how to distribute the revenues or the benefits and what should not be done,” he said.

The arbitral tribunal invalidated China’s expansive claims in the South China Sea based on so-called historic rights.

Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin, Jr. meanwhile reiterated the 2016 award is now part of international law that cannot be subverted.

“Your (media) roles are especially critical in light of attempts to dilute if not subvert the Arbitral Award; nay more, erase it from law, history, our collective memories, and our obligations as citizens of the Republic. That cannot happen unless we let it. And we will not,” Locsin said.

“The arbitral award is, along with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, the anchor of all the positions that the Philippines takes and can in honor take on the South China Sea.”

Locsin said the ruling also “conclusively settled” the status of historic rights and maritime entitlements in the South China Sea.

“It did not throw historic claims out the window; it discriminated among them."

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