The Hague arguments: Philippine case against China explained

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines) — The week covering July 7 to 13 will be pivotal to the Philippines’ legal battle to assert its claims over the portion of the South China Sea that it calls the West Philippine Sea.

A team of high-ranking government officials will present in The Hague, the Netherlands, arguments before the Arbitral Tribunal in the Permanent Court of Arbitration.

One of them is Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio, who has spoken extensively on the Philippines’ position in the maritime dispute with China.

Summing up the argument, he says the Philippines is asking the tribunal to declare China’s nine-dashed line void. The nine-dashed line is China’s purportedly historical boundary that takes up 85% of the South China Sea, including 80% of the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the West Philippine Sea.

Filipinos have been fishing in those waters for centuries.

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While China stakes its claim based on its own version of history, the Philippine claim stands on international maritime law.

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)  entitles a coastal state to an EEZ of 200 nautical miles of sea from its coastline. In some cases, it includes rights to an extended continental shelf. That means the state has sovereign or exclusive rights to use and develop resources in and from the area.

China itself is a signatory to UNCLOS, although it says it does not subscribe to some of its tenets. For instance, its nine-dashed line contradicts the convention.

In its arbitration case, the Philippine government is asking the Arbitration Court to identify the maritime entitlements generated by islands and rocks in the West Philippine Sea in order to nullify China’s nine-dashed line.

Carpio says the UNCLOS supersedes historical claims so China cannot assert its nine-dashed line.

But here’s the clincher: this first round of talks is to determine whether the Arbitration Court has jurisdiction over the case in the first place.

In December 2014, China released a statement saying that the dispute is ultimately about sovereignty over islands, therefore the standoff is territorial, not maritime. If so, the tribunal would not have the authority to hear the case.

Assistant Secretary Charles Jose, spokesperson of the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), says, if the tribunal decides that it has jurisdiction over the case, it will ask the Philippine government to present its arguments on the maritime claim “at a future date.”

But if the tribunal decides otherwise, then that would be the end of the arbitration case.

In a briefing with reporters, Jose declined to say what the government would do next if the case were to be dismissed.

Carpio, however, is confident that the tribunal will affirm the Philippines’ position.

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Even if China rejects the tribunal’s authority, a decision in favor of the Philippines will eventually result in international pressure on China to abide by the ruling.

He added that the case between Manila and Beijing will be a test for the international community: Will it uphold and defend the law or let Beijing get away with its sweeping claims?