Introduction

From 7 to 13 July 2015, the Arbitral Tribunal held the first hearing in the arbitration between the Republic of Philippines and the People’s Republic of China in connection with their dispute in the South China Sea.  The arbitration was submitted by the Philippines on 22 January 2013, pursuant to the compulsory dispute settlement provisions under part XV of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).  A five member ad hoc tribunal was constituted under annex VII of UNCLOS and sat in the Peace Palace, the headquarters of the Permanent Court of Arbitration, in the Hague. While the hearing was not open to the public, the Tribunal permitted the governments of certain states (Indonesia, Vietnam, Japan, Thailand and Malaysia) to send small delegations as observers.

The arbitration concerns disputes between the Philippines and China in relation to their maritime entitlements in the South China Sea. China has continued to reiterate its position of non-acceptance of (and non-participation in) the arbitration, maintaining that it believes in resolving disputes in the South China Sea via bilateral negotiations and that the arbitration violates previous agreements between the two states. The Philippines has sought to challenge this position at the hearing, submitting that they have pursued a course of bilateral and regional diplomatic efforts to resolve its disputes with China for almost two decades without success. The Philippines says that this has left no recourse other than arbitration.

In its Statement of Claim, the Philippines relies on UNCLOS which, it submits, defines and limits the entitlements of coastal states to a territorial sea, exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and continental shelf (and sets out states’ rights and obligations within those areas).  In particular, the Philippines relies on provisions that provide that a state’s EEZ cannot extend beyond 200 nautical miles from its mainland coast (or any island over which the state has sovereignty) (article 57), and that its continental shelf extends to the same distance (unless it can be established that the state’s continental margin extends beyond that distance) (article 76).

According to the Philippines, China contravenes these provisions by claiming, on the basis of its nine-dash line, ‘historic rights’ to areas that are beyond its 200M limit, including some areas that fall within 200M of the coasts of the Philippines’ main islands.  While China is a signatory to UNCLOS (which enabled the Philippines to commence the compulsory arbitral proceedings), it claims that it does not subscribe to some of its tenets.

However, the purpose of the first hearing was not to decide the Philippines’ substantive claims, but to decide whether the Tribunal has jurisdiction over these claims and whether they are admissible.

The Philippines’ substantive claims

At the hearing, the Philippines outlined the principal substantive claims that it intends to pursue if the Tribunal decides the question of jurisdiction in its favour. They can be summarised as follows:

  1. China is not entitled to exercise its alleged ‘historic rights’ over the waters, seabed and subsoil beyond the limits of its entitlements under UNCLOS.  Its nine-dash line, insofar as it purports to define the limits of China’s ‘historic rights’, is not supported by international law;
  2. The various maritime features relied upon by China to assert its maritime claims in the South China Sea are not islands (as China claims) but are either ‘rocks’ (within the meaning of article 121, paragraph 3 of UNCLOS), ‘low tide elevations’ or are permanently submerged.  While rocks generate an entitlement to a territorial sea of 12M (allowing China to exercise sovereignty over that area), they cannot generate an entitlement to an EEZ or continental shelf beyond that limit (and low tide elevations generate no entitlements).  China’s significant construction activities on various maritime features cannot change their nature in law;
  3. China has breached UNCLOS by interfering with the Philippines’ exercise of its sovereign rights and jurisdiction; and
  4. China’s fishing practices have damaged the marine environment in the South China Sea, including within the Philippines’ EEZ, in breach of UNCLOS. UNCLOS requires states parties to adopt measures to protect the marine environment.

The jurisdictional question

China’s position

In a position paper published in December 2014 (see also a summary of the paper here), China contended that the Philippines’ claims are beyond the scope of the Tribunal’s jurisdiction because they require the Tribunal to make determinations on territorial sovereignty and the delimitation of sea boundaries.

China made three interrelated claims in support of this contention. First, it claimed that UNCLOS does not give the Tribunal jurisdiction to address territorial sovereignty-related questions. According to China, in order to decide any of the Philippines’ claims, the Tribunal would be required to determine, directly or indirectly, the territorial sovereignty over various maritime features in the South China Sea, which is beyond the scope of UNCLOS.

Secondly, it claimed that in 2006, pursuant to article 298 of UNCLOS, China opted out of compulsory arbitration on particular categories of disputes, including those relating to sea boundary delimitations. Article 298(1) provides that, when signing or ratifying UNCLOS (or any time thereafter), a state may opt out of compulsory arbitration with respect to particular categories of disputes, one of which relates to sea boundary delimitations.  Article 298(a)(i) then provides that, when such a dispute arises and no agreement within a reasonable period of time is reached in negotiations, the opted out party must accept, at the request of the other party, submission of the matter to conciliation.

The Philippines has not requested that the parties participate in conciliation pursuant to article 298(a)(a) presumably because, as discussed below, its position is that the dispute does not concern sea boundary delimitations and therefore has not been ‘opted out of’ by China.

The Philippines’ position

At the hearing, the Philippines submitted that its claims do not require the Tribunal to make determinations on the question of territorial sovereignty or the delimitation of sea boundaries (its statement is available here). It emphasised that the Tribunal is really being asked to do the following:

  1. To clarify the nature of the disputed features in the South China Sea (ie, whether they are rocks, islands or low-tide elevations) that are relied upon by China to assert its claims, because the features’ characterisations determine whether they can be appropriated by China or can generate their own 200M EEZ; and
  2. To examine the validity of China’s nine-dash line based on its ‘historical rights’.

According to the Philippines, the question to be determined by the Tribunal on this issue, therefore, is whether UNCLOS allows a state to claim maritime entitlements based on ‘historic’ rights beyond those provided for in UNCLOS.

Accordingly, a key issue in the dispute is whether it is possible for the Tribunal to make determinations about the nature of particular maritime features and their entitlements, without addressing who actually exercises sovereignty over those features. The Tribunal will also need to consider whether it can determine the validity of the nine-dash line without addressing sovereignty over any of the maritime features within the area delimited by the line.

On a higher level, the Philippines painted the case as being a test of the utility and feasibility of UNCLOS compulsory dispute resolution mechanisms. Emphasising China’s ‘aggressive and disconcerting’ activities in the South China Sea, the Philippines contended that the dispute resolution mechanisms give weaker states the opportunity to ‘challenge the powerful on an equal footing’ on the belief that ‘law triumphs over force’. On this basis, according to the Philippines, a finding that the Tribunal lacks jurisdiction to hear its claims would render the UNCLOS dispute resolution mechanisms almost valueless for small states parties vis a vis their more powerful neighbours.

Conclusion

Notwithstanding the Philippines’ contentions concerning the case’s significance to the international community, the jurisdictional questions facing the Tribunal turn on the characterisation of the Philippines’ substantive claims and, in particular, whether they involve the determination of questions of territorial sovereignty.

The Philippines now has until 23 July 2015 to provide supplementary written submissions in response to questions posed by the Tribunal at the hearing. The Tribunal expects to determine the issue of jurisdiction by the end of the year. If it decides that it does have jurisdiction over the Philippines’ claims (and they are admissible), the matter will proceed to a substantive hearing. However, China has reiterated that it will not alter its position in the South China Sea and, therefore, is unlikely to comply with any unfavourable ruling ultimately made by the Tribunal.

Lea Christopher is a lawyer at Clayton Utz in Canberra. The views expressed in this article are solely her own.