Game Changer? Philippines Seeks UNCLOS Arbitration with China Over the South China Sea
In a potentially huge development, the Government of the Philippines announced earlier today that it has filed for arbitration with China under the UN Convention for the Law of the Sea. The Philippines’ claim places China’s controversial sovereignty claim over the South China Sea (see right) squarely before an international arbitral tribunal convened under Article 287 of UNCLOS. According to the Philippines Foreign Minister, here are the main claims:
- The Philippines asserts that China’s so-called nine-dash line claim that encompasses virtually the entire South China Sea/West Philippine Sea is contrary to UNCLOS and thus unlawful.
- Within the maritime area encompassed by the 9-dash line, China has also laid claim to, occupied and built structures on certain submerged banks, reefs and low tide elevations that do not qualify as islands under UNCLOS, but are parts of the Philippine continental shelf, or the international seabed.
- In addition, China has occupied certain small, uninhabitable coral projections that are barely above water at high tide, and which are “rocks” under Article 121 (3) of UNCLOS.China has interfered with the lawful exercise by the Philippines of its rights within its legitimate maritime zones, as well as to the aforementioned features and their surrounding waters.
- The Philippines is conscious of China’s Declaration of August 25, 2006 under Article 298 of UNCLOS (regarding optional exceptions to the compulsory proceedings), and has avoided raising subjects or making claims that China has, by virtue of that Declaration, excluded from arbitral jurisdiction.
Some early thoughts. As I argued here, I still think the Philippines has a massive jurisdictional problem because of China’s Article 298 declaration excludes the following certain subjects from this kind of arbitration.
(a)(i) disputes concerning the interpretation or application of articles 15, 74 and 83 relating to sea boundary delimitations, or those involving historic bays or titles….
China is claiming (at least it has often seemed to be claiming) that it has complete sovereignty over the South China Sea (per the map above). I take the Philippines is arguing that China’s South China Sea claim is not really a “sea boundary delimitation” within the meaning of Article 15. Nor is the Chinese SCS claim about “historic bays” and “titles”. I don’t think that the Philippines has a hopeless case, but I do think they will face a huge challenge to get any arbitral tribunal to assert jurisdiction here, especially since one judge will be appointed by China.
On the plus side, if the Philippines manages to get past the jurisdictional hurdle, it seems to me that they have a very good chance of prevailing since China’s claim is hard to square with the rest of UNCLOS. Moreover, they force China to go on the defensive here without actually threatening China in any military or economic way.
Strategically, I think I understand why the Philippines has filed this claim. They have very little leverage with China: economically, politically, or militarily. In this forum, the worst case scenario is the Philippines will lose on jurisdiction. This shouldn’t affect the merits of their claims, though. For China, the worst case scenario is that it loses on the merits and would have to face the decision of whether to comply with the tribunal. If they lose, I can see China simply withdrawing from UNCLOS.
In any event, I think it is safe to say this it a game changer in the long-running South China Sea dispute. It is also, without question, the most important case that has ever been filed under the dispute resolution procedures of UNCLOS. It will be a crucial test of the UNCLOS institutions, as well as of UNCLOS members. I am skeptical that China will allow itself to be drawn into serious international adjudication (see my argument here), but it will be fascinating to see how China reacts.