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)
Participants to the recently concluded 4th biennial Conference of the Asian Society of International Law in New Delhi, India last November 15, 2017 heard for the first time the Chinese position on the Philippine arbitral claim on the West Philippines Sea dispute.
In the said conference, I delivered a paper entitled “What next after the Chinese Snub? Examining the UNCLOS dispute settlement procedure: Philippines vs. China”. My paper argued that the issues that the Philippines brought to the arbitral claims, to wit, the validity of China’s nine-dash lines, whether certain low-tide elevations where China has built installations pertain to the Philippines as part of its continental shelf; and whether the waters surrounding the territorial sea of Panatag form part of the Philippines EEZ are issues of interpretation of specific provisions of the UNCLOS and hence, were within the compulsory and binding dispute settlement procedure of the UNCLOS.
Further, while I acknowledged that China’s reservations on maritime delimitation and law enforcement activities in the exercise of sovereign rights were more challenging obstacles to hurdle, they were not insurmountable because the language of the Philippine claim does not call for a ruling involving any of the reservations made by China.
My paper assumed that the Tribunal’s jurisdiction over China as party to the proceedings was well settled. This is because China, as a party to the UNCLOS, has accepted the dispute settlement procedure of the Convention, together with all the provisions of the Convention which were all adopted on the basis of consensus.
The Chinese Judge to the International Court of Justice, Judge Xue Hanqin, was present in the conference. Judge Xue is the highest woman official in China prior to her election to the Court. Previously, she served as chief legal adviser and head of the treaties office of the Chinese Foreign Ministry and Ambassador to the Netherlands and Asean. She is said to have been groomed to be part of the Central Bureau of China’s People’s Party had she not opted to join the ICJ. While Judge Xue and I have been good friends, having served together in the Executive Council of the Asian Society of International Law for the past 6 years, I knew it would still be awkward to have her listening to my presentation.
But the most unusual thing happened after my 25-minute presentation. Judge Xue, explaining that since she was the only Chinese present in the conference because the Chinese delegates were denied visas by Indian authorities, took the floor for the next 20 minutes and for the first time expounded extensively on the Chinese position on the Philippine arbitral claim. This was unusual because magistrates, be it from domestic or international courts, will normally refuse to comment on an actual dispute, which could come to their court for adjudication. This certainly applies to the West Philippines Sea dispute.
Judge Xue raised four crucial points. Her first was that the Philippine claim involved territorial claims which is outside the purview of UNCLOS. She added though that “since the end of World War II, the international community, has acknowledged the existence of China’s nine-dash lines with no country ever questioning it until oil resources were discovered in the area.” Without expounding on the nature of the lines, she claimed that it is “not considered as a boundary line” and they “have not affected international navigation in the area.” She claimed that there was “”no international law applied in this regard to the region.”
Second, Judge Xue argued that 40 countries, including China, made declarations to the dispute settlement procedure of the UNCLOS. According to her, this means “these 40 states have not accepted the dispute settlement of the Convention as being compulsory”. She said that “when countries joined UNCLOS I, they are not deemed to have given up all their previous territorial claims.”
Third, she said that as China’s first Ambassador to Asean, she knows that the countries of Asean and China have agreed to a code of conduct relating to the South China Sea. Under this code, disputes must be resolved through negotiations and not through arbitration. She claimed that this obligation was “a substantive obligation binding on all claimant state.”
Fourth, Judge Xue explained that China opted out of the arbitration because “no country can fail to see the design” of the Philippine claim which she described as having “mixed up jurisdiction with the merits.”
She opined that the Philippines’ resort to arbitration complicated what she described as an “impressive process between Asean and China”. What the Philippine did “was to begin with the “complicated part of the South China Sea dispute” rather then with easier ones such as “disaster management.” This later pronouncement all but confirmed that the very limited humanitarian assistance extended to the Philippines by China in the aftermath of Yolanda was because of the Philippine resort to arbitration.
Judge Xue ended her intervention by exhorting the Philippines to consider joint use of the disputed waters, a matter that according to her has been successfully resorted to by China and Vietnam.
While Judge Xue’s intervention made our panel, without a doubt, the most memorable exchange in the conference, her declarations provided us with many answers that China has refused to give us.
We have Judge Xue to thank for this.
Judge Xue asked that I post this disclaimer: “Judge Xue Hanqin wishes to reiterate that she participated in the 4th Biennial Conference of the Asian Society of International Law held in New Delhi from 14-16 November 2013 in her personal capacity as a member of the said Society and her remarks in response to Professor Harry Roque’s presentation at the panel discussion on the South China Sea are solely of her own and do not represent in any way the official position ofChina on the issue. She also wishes to point out that her remarks are not fully and accurately reflected in Blog articles.”
The arbitration initiated by the Philippines against China impugning
the validity of China’s nine-dash lines appear to be on track. Last
week, pursuant to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, the
Japanese President of the international tribunal on the Law of the Sea
(ITLOS) completed the five man tribunal that will rule on the
Philippines arbitral claims. Initially, the Philippines appointed its
nominee to the panel, the German Judge at the ITLOS, Professor Rudiger
Wolfrum. Later, the ITLOS president appointed a polish academic to be
act as China’s arbitrator to the panel, Mr. Stanislaw Pawlak. Last
week, the three remaining arbitrators were appointed: Mr. Jean-Pierre
Cot of France, Mr. Chris Pinto of Sri Lanka, and Mr. Alfred Soons of
A jurist once remarked that “the law is what the Judges say it is”.
This means that while the Philippines has claimed thattChina’s
nine-dash lines is contrary to the UNCLOS, the 5 man tribunal will be
the sole judge of whether this is in fact the case. Before they can
decide the issue on the merits, they have first to rule whether the
Philippines submissions are covered by the compulsory and binding
dispute procedure under UNCLOS; that is, that it involves issues
relating to “application and interpretation” of the Convention; and
that the issues are not covered by any of China’s reservations, to
wit: disputes involving maritime delimitation; military activities,
including military activities by government vessels and aircraft
engaged in noncommercial service; and disputes concerning law
enforcement activities in regard to the exercise of sovereign rights
Since this five man tribunal will rule on whether China can treat the
South China Sea as its lake,a lot hinges on who these appointed
arbitrators are, Fortunately, in an effort perhaps to convince China
that the Tribunal will arrive at the correct decision, the ITLOS
President, despite the pending maritime disputes existing between his
own state of Japan and China, appointed perhaps the most qualified
arbitrators to rule on the issues of both jurisdiction and the merits.
Here is a short summary of who these arbitrators are:
Mr. Chris Pinto- member of the Sri Lanka bar and Barrister at the
Inner temple, London. Graduate of University of Sri Lanka
(Peradeniya), LL.B; and University of Cambridge: LL.M (International
Law). Honorary Ll. D from University of Colombo (Sri Lanka). Former
.Legal Officer, International Atomic Energy Agency, Vienna.
(1960-1963); Attorney, World Bank, Washington, D.C. (1963-1967)The
Legal Adviser, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Sri Lanka.
(1967-1977)Member, Sri Lanka Delegation to the U.N. Conference on the
Law of Treaties, Vienna. (1968-1969)Ambassador of Sri Lanka to Germany
and Austria. (1977-1982)Member and Chairman, U.N. International Law
Commission, Geneva.(1973-1982) ;Member (later Chairman), Sri Lankan
Delegation, Third U.N. Conference on the Law of the Sea. (1973-1982)
Secretary-General, Iran-United States Claims Tribunal, The Hague.
(1982 to present) Secretary-General, Iran-United States Claims
Member (Sri Lanka), Permanent Court of Arbitration, The
Hague.Alternate Member (Sri Lanka), International Court of Arbitration
of the International Chamber of Commerce, Paris.Sole arbitrator in
dispute between Singapore firm and Sri Lanka State Timber Corporation
(Permanent Court of Arbitration);President of Five Member Tribunal in
marine environmental dispute Between Malaysia and Singapore. (Under
Annex VII of the UNCLOS). Source: Source:
Judge Jean-Pierre Cot
Member of the Tribunal (ITLOS) since 1 October 2002; re-elected as
from 1 October 2011; President of the Chamber for Marine Environment
Disputes 2008-2011. Licence en droit, Docteur en droit public, Paris
Law Faculty (1955–1965); Agrégé des facultés de droit et des sciences
économiques (1966). Professor of public and international law and
Dean, University of Amiens (1966–1969); Professor of public and
international law, University of Paris-I (Panthéon-Sorbonne)
(1969–1998); Emeritus Professor, University of Paris-I (1999–present);
Associate Research Fellow, Université Libre de Bruxelles
(1999–present); Counsel and Advocate in a number of cases before the
International Court of Justice: Frontier Dispute (Burkina
Faso/Republic of Mali), Territorial Dispute (Libyan Arab
Jamahiriya/Chad), Kasikili/Sedudu Islands (Botswana/Namibia), Armed
activities on the territory of the Congo (Democratic Republic of the
Congo v. Burundi), Land and Maritime Boundary between Cameroon and
Nigeria (Cameroon v. Nigeria), Sovereignty over Pulau Litigan and
Pulau Sipadan (Indonesia/Malaysia); Member of an arbitral tribunal of
the International Chamber of Commerce; Counsel and advocate, arbitral
tribunal, France/UNESCO; President of an arbitral tribunal established
within the framework of the European Development Fund; Judge ad hoc,
International Court of Justice, Maritime Delimitation in the Black Sea
(Romania v. Ukraine),Aerial Herbicide Spraying (Ecuador v. Colombia),
Territorial and Maritime Dispute (Nicaragua v. Colombia) and Temple of
Preah Vihear, Interpretation (Cambodia v. Thailand).
MR.ALFRED H.A.SOONS, Studied law at Utrecht University, The
Netherlands, followed by postgraduate studies in international law at
the University of Washington (Seattle, USA) and Cambridge University
(UK). He obtained a PhD-degree at Utrecht University in 1982.
Professor of public international law and director of the Netherlands
Institute for the Law of the Sea (NILOS) at Utrecht University in
1987. Acted as counsel and arbitrator he has been involved in
international litigation at the International Court of Justice and
Judge Stanislaw Pawlak
Member of the Tribunal since 1 October 2005. Born: Kalisz, Poland, 27
September 1933; Education: Master of Law, University of Warsaw (1955);
Doctor of Law, University of Warsaw (1967); Doctor habilitated of
Political Science, University of Warsaw (1973). Professional
Experience: Legal Adviser and Analytic Officer, Polish delegation to
the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission in Panmunjon, Korea
(1956–1958); Attaché and Second Secretary, Polish Embassy, Tokyo
(1958–1963); Senior Counsellor, Ministry of Foreign Affairs
(1963–1965, 1970–1972); Deputy Chief, Polish delegation to the
International Control Commission, Saigon, Viet Nam (1965–1966); First
Secretary, Polish Embassy to the United States of America (1967–1970);
Deputy Director, Foreign Minister’s Office (1973–1975); Polish
Representative to the UN General Assembly (1973–1978, 1983–1990,
2002–2005); Associate Professor of International Relations and
International Law, Faculty of Journalism and Political Science,
University of Warsaw (1974–2001); Director, Department of
International Organizations, Ministry of Foreign Affairs (1975–1978);
Ambassador, Canada (1978–1983); Director, Legal and Treaty Department,
Ministry of Foreign Affairs (1983–1986); Head of Polish delegation,
talks with the GDR delegation on the Agreement of 22 May 1989 on
delimitation of the maritime boundary with the GDR (1983–1988); Head
of Polish delegation, talks with the USSR delegation on the
delimitation of the Polish-Soviet sea border (1985); Chairman, Polish
delegation to the Vienna diplomatic conference which drew up the draft
Convention on the law of treaties between States and international
organizations and between international organizations (1986);
Director, International Organizations Department, Ministry of Foreign
Affairs (1986–1989); Ambassador and Permanent Representative of
Poland, UN, New York (1989–1991); Visiting Professor, various
universities in the United States and Syria (1990–2001); Chairman,
group of Polish experts, talks with the delegation of experts of the
Russian Federation and delegations of experts of other interested
States on protection and conservation of marine resources of the Sea
of Okhotsk (1992–1995); Delegate of Poland to the Steering Committee
for Human Rights (CDDH), Council of Europe (1992–1995);
Deputy-Director, Legal and Treaty Department, Ministry of Foreign
Affairs (1992–1996); Chairman, Polish Delegation to the International
Conference which drew up the 1994 Convention on Protection of
Fisheries in the Bering Sea (1993–1994); Chairman, Polish Delegation
to the UN Conference for the Agreement on Straddling Fish Stocks and
Highly Migratory Stocks (1993–1995); Ambassador, Syrian Arab Republic
and Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan (1996–2001); Adviser to the President
of the Republic of Poland (2001–2005); Titular Ambassador
(2002–present); Professor of International Relations and Public
International Law, Faculty of Journalism and Political Science,
University of Warsaw (2002–2011); Professor Emeritus, University of
Warsaw; President, thirteenth Meeting of States Parties to the
Convention (2003); Chairman, Polish delegations to the thirteenth and
fourteenth Meetings of States Parties to the Convention (2003–2004);
nominated to the List of Arbitrators under article 2 of annexes V and
VII to the Convention (2004); Professor and Dean, Faculty of Social
Science and Administration, Warsaw Academy of Computer Science and
Judge Rüdiger Wolfrum
Member of the Tribunal since 1 October 1996; re-elected as from 1
October 1999 and 1 October 2008; Vice-President of the Tribunal
1996-1999; President of the Chamber for Marine Environment Disputes
1997-1999; President of the Tribunal 2005-2008; Member of the Special
Chamber formed to deal with the Case concerning the Conservation and
Sustainable Exploitation of Swordfish Stocks in the South-Eastern
Pacific Ocean 2000-2009
Education: First State Examination (1969); Second State Examination
(1973); Dr. jur., University of Bonn (1973); Habilitation, venia
legendi for National Public and International Public Law (1980).
Professional Experience: Assistant Professor, Institute of
International Law, University of Bonn (1973–1982); Research fellow,
Center for Oceans Law and Policy, University of Virginia (1977–1978);
Professor of National Public and International Public Law, University
of Mainz (1982); Professor, Chair of National Public and International
Public Law and Director, Institute of International Law, University of
Kiel (1982–1993); Vice-Rector, University of Kiel (1990–1993); Judge
at the Courts of Appeal for Administrative Matters, Lüneburg and
Schleswig (1986–1993); Director, Max Planck Institute for Comparative
Public Law and International Law, Heidelberg (1993–present);
Professor, Faculty of Law, University of Heidelberg (1993–present);
Vice-President, German Research Foundation (1996–2002); Honorary
Professor, Faculty of Law, University of Hamburg (2002–present);
Vice-President, Max Planck Society for the Advancement of Science
(2002–2005); Honorary Professor, Faculty of Law, University of
Pretoria; Member, Board of the Max Planck Foundation on International
Peace and Rule of Law (2012).
German delegation to: Third UN Conference on the Law of the Sea
(1980–1982), Preparatory Commission for the International Seabed
Authority and for the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea
(1982), 4th Special Consultative Meeting concerning Antarctic mineral
resource activities (1983–1988); Chairman of the Legal Working Group
of the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meetings preparing an Annex to
the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty on
responsibility for environmental damage (1993–1998); UN Committee on
the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (1990–2000, re-elected 1994
and 1998); Founding Member of the Humanities Section of the German
Academy of Natural Sciences (Leopoldina) (2003); Board of Trustees of
the University of Hamburg (2003–present); Chairman, Board of
theDeutsche Gesellschaft für Völkerrecht (German Society for
International Law) (2005–2009); Institut de droit international
by Julian Ku, Opinio Juris
For those of you wondering how seriously the Chinese media is taking the Philippines’ arbitration claim against China over the South China Sea (there must be at least two of you out there), here is an illustrative cartoon from a Chinese newspaper, “JingChu Times”, in Central China (although originally from another publication).
Although one doesn’t need to read Chinese to get the jist, here is my attempt to translate anyway.
The Foot is labeled: “Chinese Territory”
The Fish biting the Foot’s toe is labeled: “The Philippines”. The Fish is holding a sign with the words: “Mine!”.
Yes, this Annex VII UNCLOS arbitration claim is really sending shock waves throughout China.
After almost a year since our stalemate with China on Panatag Shoal, it’s about time we brought the controversy to the binding and compulsory dispute settlement procedure of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos). But contrary to many media reports, the action is not before the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea (Itlos), or before the United Nations. What was initiated is ad hoc arbitration pursuant to the Unclos.
Under the dispute settlement procedure of the Unclos, state parties may specify where they will submit all disputes over the “interpretation and application” of the Convention, either to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) or the Itlos. If a state party does not specify which body it will bring these disputes to, the default choice will be through binding arbitration under Annex VII of the Convention. Since both China and the Philippines did not choose either the ICJ or the Itlos, they are both deemed to have agreed to resolve these disputes to binding arbitration.
What happened last Tuesday was that we began the procedure of binding arbitration by serving China with a notification that we are initiating the same and providing China with a statement of our claims. We have also chosen our arbitrator in what will be a 5-member arbitral tribunal. China should now choose its own arbitrator. Thereafter, both parties should select the rest of the arbitrators from a list maintained by the UN Secretary General. If they cannot agree on the three further arbitrators, it is the president of the Itlos who will make the appointment to complete the tribunal.
After the tribunal has been constituted, China will reply to our statement of claims. It is expected that it will challenge the jurisdiction of the tribunal by invoking its reservation on the dispute settlement procedure. This can either be that the controversy relates to the exercise of sovereign rights and/or involves an issue of maritime delimitation. Both these grounds are provided in the reservations made by China in 2006.
This raises the question as to why the Philippines did not hale China to binding arbitration under the Unclos before 2006. The first incident over Panatag occurred in 1997 during the term of President Fidel Ramos, when we arrested Chinese poachers for illegal fishing in the area and charged them before a metropolitan trial court in Zambales. At that time, China had not yet made reservations on the dispute settlement procedure of the Unclos. Perhaps it was thought that Panatag may be resolved through bilateral negotiations? Whatever the reason, we now have to contend with China’s defense that the dispute is subject to its reservations.
This notwithstanding, credit goes to the Solicitor General because our submission of claims is crafted in a manner that will exclude all of China’s reservations. For instance, the submission asked the tribunal to rule on the validity of the controversial “nine-dash line,” since it does not constitute either China’s internal waters, territorial sea, or exclusive economic zone. This asks the tribunal to rule, as an issue of interpretation of the Unclos, whether the nine-dash lines comply with the Convention. Likewise, China has built permanent structures on reefs such as Mischief and Subi, which are permanently under water. The submission prays that the tribunal declare that since these are neither “rocks” nor “islands,” these should be declared as forming part of our country’s continental shelf, or the natural prolongation of our land mass.
On Panatag, our submission asks the tribunal to declare that the six very small rocks permanently above water can generate only 12 nautical miles of territorial sea. This declaration, if made, will clarify that the waters surrounding the small rocks still form part of our 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone.
While our submission bodes well for a peaceful resolution of the dispute, it will still not completely resolve the West Philippine Sea disputes. The
Unclos, after all, being the applicable law on the seas, cannot be utilized to resolve conflicting claims to islands. This aspect of the dispute will still be resolved on the basis of which claimant-state has the superior evidence of effective occupation. Nonetheless, a legal clarification on China’s claims to alleged islands and rocks that are under water, as well as the issue of which state can exercise sovereign rights on the waters surrounding Panatag, will simplify resolution of the entire dispute.
If we are successful, what will remain for resolution is only the issue of conflicting claims to islands. While China will have to give its separate consent to litigate the status of these islands, at least the issue of freedom of navigation and the exercise of sovereign rights over a large part of the disputed waters will have a final and binding legal determination.
Lest I be accused of being overly optimistic, the truth is China may very well argue that its legal entitlement to the disputed waters is based on its “uncontroverted” sovereignty to land territories. Even if the arbitral tribunal cannot exercise jurisdiction over these claims to land territories, it may be enough to remove jurisdiction from it because the matter, as phrased by China, may no longer be an issue of “interpretation” and “application” of the Unclos. If this happens, we will be back to where we were: a standoff.
China appears to be applying the law literally. The rule is where there is a dispute to territory, the claimant that can show a superior claim to the same, be it land or water, will be adjudged as having title thereto.
In land territory, the rule is that discovery alone gives rise to an inchoate title that must be perfected through effective occupation. The latter entails submission of evidence that the disputed testimony was subject to the exercise of both sovereignty and jurisdiction. Some evidence recognized by tribunals as proof of effective occupation would include the simple act of hoisting the flag in small and desolate island territories, and such acts as the grant of concessions, appending the disputed territory to a local government unit, and proof that institutions such as the courts or civil register were functioning in the disputed area.
This is why China has recently been attempting to bolster its claim to both the Kalayaan Group of islands and Panatag. Very recently, it created a new municipality, Sansha, that would exercise jurisdiction over the disputed islands in the West Philippine Sea. This is also why it has recently built a structure on yet another disputed island within our Kalayaan group of islands, the Subi Reef. The order to send a 30 boat armada of Chinese fishermen is also to bolster their claim that the waters have been the subject of acquired fishing rights by its nationals.
But will China’s recent acts actually result in its desired result of bolstering its territorial claims?
Justice Holmes remarked that the life of the law is not logic; it has been experience. As early as the leading case of Palmas, an arbitration where the Americans lost Palmas Island to us, the lone arbitrator came out with a judicial technique, the “critical date” which has been adopted by other tribunals. Under this technique, international tribunals resolving territorial disputes will ignore all acts of claimants to territories after the “critical date”. This date, in turn, is the time when the controversy first arose between the parties. It is the moment in time when the parties have advanced conflicting claims of title over the disputed territory. It is when the parties officially joined the issues albeit out-of-court.
In the Palmas case, the lone arbitrator disregarded evidence offered by the parties after the critical date because human experience tell us that all such evidence would be self-serving. After a controversy has arisen, it is only reasonable for both parties to strengthen—rather than weaken—their respective claims. This is why after all the claimants to Kalayaan publicly advanced their claims to the islands, all of them took steps to bolster their respective claims of effective occupation over the islands.
When is the critical date to the Spratlys?
It would appear to vary depending on which state is making the claim. France claimed the islands in 1933 . This was met with protests from China, Japan, and even Great Britain. All those that protested the claim of France hence articulated their own basis for title to the islands. It would seem that for China and Vietnam, the latter as the successor state of France, the critical date would be 1933. But for the Philippines, the critical date would be in the 1950s after Thomas Cloma claimed discovery over the islands that he described as “res nullius”—belonging to no one. The critical date for both Malaysia and Brunei, since their claims are anchored only on the regime of the continental shelf and the exclusive economic zone under the UNCLOS, would be in 1984, the year when the convention took effect.
Of course it is still important for the Philippines to repeatedly protest all these subsequent acts of effective occupation. Failure to protest may lead to estoppel. The international community recognizes international law as such because it forms part of a normative system. Here, its normative content is the preservation of international peace and security. The concept of “critical date” exists precisely to minimize the threat or the actual use of force. Were it not for this technique, claimant countries to disputed territory may resort to shooting whenever a claimant takes steps to bolster its claim after the “critical date.” Because of this technique, claimants are assured that acts that transpired after the controversy may mean nothing in the resolution of the controversy and hence need not result in a gunfight.
I am concerned that many of our countrymen, including those in the media, appear to be agitated with news of what China has been doing lately. Fortunately, we need not lose our cool since all these may be for naught.
Like President Aquino, let’s keep our cool.