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spratlys islands

China’s retaliation?

Former Secretary Raffy Alunan warned on ANC this week that China will retaliate in response to our filing of our Memorial in our  pending arbitration against China under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Citing the earlier move of China in banning the entry of our bananas into their territory, Alunan warned that China’ s retaliation could be in the form of further economic sanctions and worse, even sabotage. Referring to the possibility of the latter, Alunan warned that the Chinese could resort to sabotage of our power grid, since the National Power Grid Corporation is 40% owned by a Chinese company. He also warned about possible cyber attacks against our networks.  A pro-China advocate has dismissed Alunan’s warnings as unlikely. I prefer not to dismiss the warnings as in fact; history has shown that nothing is impossible in the field of international relations. Who would have thought that the United States would persist in its illegal occupation of Iraq? Neither did we expect that Russia would be so brazen as to annex Crimea?   Simply put, we have to prepare for China’s retaliations, whatever form it may take.

Alunan was actually warning about two things: one, China’s unwavering claim to the nine-dash lines; which will persist whether or not we continue with our arbitration. Second, the fact that China has not been shy in telling the world that it takes offense to the fact that it was sued before an international tribunal. Judge Xue Henquin explained in the Biennial Conference of the Asian Society of International Law that this was a “cultural” trait of the Chinese. They just don’t like to be sued.

Alunan’s warnings therefore should be qualified. Insofar as the Chinese claim to the West Philippine Sea is concerned, China will not only resort to sanctions and sabotage in order to defend its claim. In fact, its published defense policy is to develop sea-denial capability in the West Philippines Sea from 2010 to 2020. This means that it will not have second thoughts in ousting countries, even through the illegal use of force, that it views as “intruders” in the disputed islands and shoals in the Spratlys and Panatag. On the other hand, given China’s antipathy towards the arbitration, which, if the Tribunal assumes jurisdiction will surely result in judgment against it, China will apply, all sorts of pressure for the country to withdraw the same. This is where the sanctions and sabotage may come to play, as warned by Alunan.

In any case, Alunan’s warning about the sabotage on our power grid deserves serious attention. With allegations of price fixing now hounding our power producers, Congress should seriously re-examine its earlier view that power generation and distribution are not in the nature of public convenience. Had they been as such as in fact they are, the state could have exercised the necessary regulation that could have prevented these allegations of price fixing today. Moreover, power generation and distribution are franchises. They are for the public with the latter as end users. Ergo, both businesses are hence vested with the public interest and hence, their entitlement to engage in these kind of business should be in the nature of a privilege and not a right. The consequence of this would be an outright revocation of their franchise if the allegations of price fixing could be proven.

In any case, while I fully concur with Alunan that the Philippines should be weary of China’s retaliation, perhaps we should still not be too alarmed on the consequences of the filing of our memorial due on the 30th of this month.

I think what China objects to is the initiation of the arbitral proceedings itself and not the memorial per se. In fact the Chinese, through Judge Xue, considers the arbitration as a “substantive breach” of the code of conduct agreed upon by China and ASEAN. What baffles me on this point is how China can complaint that a peaceful resort to peaceful arbitration can be a breach of a treaty obligation while at the same time, resorting to the firing of water canons at unarmed Filipino subsistence fishermen as being in compliance with the said code of conduct.

One final point. Alunan said that the barring of Philippine bananas was because of the initiation of the arbitration proceedings. This is not the case. The resort to non-0-trade barriers against our bananas was an offshoot of our navy boat arresting Chinese fishermen in Panatag. Fortunately, while China can resort to this anew, it will not be as easy as it was in the past. This is because meanwhile, ASEAN and China entered into a bilateral investment agreement that grants protection to both our investments and export products. This means that it will be expensive for China to bar entry of any of our export commodities henceforth. This courtesy of the ASEAN Investment treaty with China.

(as published in the column of Atty. Harry L. Roque Jr. in Manila Standard Today, 27 March 2014)

 

ITLOS and the Scarborough Shoal

Now that Secretary Albert Del Rosario shares my view that the Scarborough Shoal dispute should be submitted to the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) for peaceful resolution, the question is: how could the tribunal exercise jurisdiction without China giving its consent to do so?

The answer lies in the dispute settlement procedure of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS). These provisions are not only very long, but are recognized by scholars as amongst the most complicated provisions of the convention.

In a nutshell, the provisions on dispute settlement were made part of the “package deal” that state parties agreed to be bound when they became parties to the UNCLOS. In an effort to make all of the provisions of the UNCLOS a restatement of customary international law, each and every provision of the convention were agreed upon by states on the basis of consensus, and not just by a vote of the majority. Consequently, not only did the UNCLOS become the longest treaty to negotiate, it also became unique because of the rule that parties thereto may not make reservations on any of its provisions, including those dealing with dispute resolution.

The ITLOS jurisdiction was made compulsory and mandatory on all state parties in all disputes arising from the “”interpretation or application of any provision in the Convention”. Because state parties to the Convention, including the Philippines and China, have already referred to the ITLOS these types of disputes, China need not give its consent anew if we were to bring the issue of the exercise of sovereign rights in Scarborough shoal, Recto Bank and even parts of the Spratly’s to the tribunal.

Notice though that while Scarborough dispute, because it is one over fishing rights in maritime territory may- be brought to the ITLOS even without the consent of China, the Spratly’s controversy, on the other hand, would still require China’s consent. The reason is simple: because the Scarborough issue is purely a dispute involving water, it may be resolved wholly under the UNCLOS and as such, is an issue arising from an “interpretation” of the Convention’s provisions on sovereign rights. By definition, sovereign rights refer to the exclusive right of a state to explore and exploit all natural resources found in the waters of its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), which is 200 nautical miles from the baseline of a country.

The issue in Scarborough is whether fishing by Chinese nationals there violates the sovereign right of the Philippines to exclusively engage in fishing in the area. A resolution of this issue would require the ITLOS to make a factual determination if the shoal is within the country’s EEZ and whether the shoal, as China claims, is an island. If it were indeed an island, yet an issue to be resolved would be whether it is entitled to other maritime zones or just a 12 nautical mile territorial sea. In either case, the primordial issue would be which nation should be allowed to fish in the area of the disputed shoal.

The Spratly’s dispute, on the other hand, is one that involves conflicting claims to both land and water territory. As such. UNCLOS cannot be the sole applicable law for the obvious reason that it deals only with maritime territories. The territorial dispute to the islands are subject to the rule they should pertain to the state that can prove a superior claim in terms of effectivities, or the exercise of the rights and obligations borne out of the exercise of sovereignty over disputed land territory. As such, disputes over islands are disputes beyond the “interpretation” of the UNCLOS rules on maritime territory. This is why China must consent anew to the exercise of jurisdiction by ITLOS in resolving the Spratly’s dispute. It is because conflicting claims to land territory do not involve issues of interpretation of the UNCLOS and are hence, are not subject to the mandatory and compulsory jurisdiction of the ITLOS.

Recent events have proven that we are no match to China in terms of military firepower. It was fool hardy for Filipino policy makers to think that BRP Gregorio Del Pilar, our one and only battleship, can drive Chinese fishermen away from the area. In any case, resort to the use of force to settle international disputes are prohibited by both the UN Charter and the UNCLOS. I am happy that Secretary Del Rosario has finally declared that instead of a military solution, we have opted for a peaceful and legal resolution of the dispute. In this manner, we may yet repeat the feat of a boy named David that slew a giant named Goliath.

(Published in the Manila Standard Today newspaper on /2012/April/19)

Freedoms and the Spratlys

I’m still abroad as I write this column. I am currently in Bangkok, Thailand doing a training on freedom of expression for Burmese, Laotian, and Cambodian lawyers. It is a bit of an irony that while I am training members of civil society in Southeast Asia on the value of this freedom in creating a […] More →

Summit on KIG

Summit on Kalayaan islands The Institute of International Legal Studies of the University of the Philippines Law Center held last Monday and Tuesday a National Summit on the Kalayaan Group of Islands and the West Philippine Sea. The summit sought to define the national interest in the disputed islands, as well as to produce a […] More →

What cost reprieve?

FOREIGN relations is not for the weak. In promoting their national interest, states employ their best poker players as diplomats to bluff, cajole, and threaten if need be. It is not for the faint hearted. Because in asserting what is best for a country, diplomats will employ ruse, lies and gimmickry to achieve what is […] More →