UN court to hear West PH Sea case

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A United Nations court will take a week hearing the case — and then at least a month before releasing its decision.

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines) — Oral arguments on the Philippines' claim over the West Philippine Sea began in the Hague in the Netherlands Tuesday evening (July 7, PH time).

At the Peace Palace, a team of high-level Philippine officials buckled down to argue its case.

Beijing will not be there, but it has managed to shoot an arrow straight into the heart of Manila's arbitration case.

Because international law measures maritime entitlements from land, Beijing — through a position paper — held that the issue was ultimately about territory.

That would would make the issue a question of sovereignty — which the arbitral tribunal cannot decide on.

Chito Sta. Romana, former ABC News Beijing bureau chief, noted earlier on Tuesday that, even if the Chinese were not participating in the proceedings, their presence would be felt like the elephant in the room.

"They may not be there in terms of physical presence but their arguments are the ones the Philippine side will have to answer and rebut convincingly," Sta. Romana said. 

Aside from the sovereignty issue, Beijing had pointed out that its commitment under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) did not include being forced into arbitration on maritime delimitations.

Beijing had also argued that the Philippines had not exhaust other ways of resolving the dispute.

Manila, however, maintained that it had tried several times to hold talks with Beijing — but China demanded that the Philippines acknowledge its "indisputable sovereignty" over the West Philippine Sea before proceeding.

Sta. Romana said that the Philippine panel must prove to the tribunal that Manila had no other choice but to take the matter to court.

And the panel must also convince the tribunal that it would be possible to identify which parts of the disputed waters Filipinos have rights to — without having to deal with sovereignty over islands and rocks.

At the very least, the panel must get the tribunal to zero in on Beijing's nine-dashed line.

"There is no way it can be justified under international law or UNCLOS," according to Sta. Romana.

Sta. Romana said Manila would need to debunk just one of Beijing's arguments for the tribunal to proceed hearing the case.

"I'm hoping at least we get jurisdiction that will allow us to go to the discussion about nine-dashed line. If we get that, that is already a major victory," he said.

He added that if the issue over rocks and islands can be included, "then that would be a big victory."

A victory that would pave the way for the real battle — proving the merits of Manila's claims over the West Philippine Sea.

"I think we have a fighting chance. I know that it's a narrow ground that we have to maneuver and the Tribunal will try to ask all sorts of questions. But I think we have to overcome the hurdle."

Because if Manila didn't win this round of arguments,  it will have to go back to square one.