Philippine policy makers have confirmed that despite the pendency of its arbitration proceedings under the binding and compulsory dispute settlement procedure of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, China is hastening the building of an artificial island in Mabini reef, as well as expanding its existing artificial island in Fiery Reef.
Contemporaneous with these construction, China has been more aggressive in exercising its sovereign right to explore for oil in the disputed area leading to recent boat ramming incidents resulting in at least 10 Vietnamese being wounded. It also issued what appears to be a demand letter for the Philippines to leave all of the disputed islands and waters in the Spratlys, as well as from Panatag shoal, the latter being separate and distinct form the Spratlys.
I have written before that China’s acts are consistent with its published defense policy, which currently seeks to achieve “sea-denial capability” in what it considers as its coastal waters, the waters within the so-called nine-dash lines. Clearly, one must commend the Chinese—albeit bereft of legal merits—for their consistency in both policy formulation and implementation.
Given recent Chinese actions and the fact that contrary to the best hope of Philippine policy makers that US President Obama’s visit to the region will have a deterrent effect on Chinese expansionism, these recent events validate China’s design to expel all other claimant countries from the disputed territory on or before 2020, which is only six years away. Given this reality, it becomes imperative for the Philippines to prompt the UNCLOS ad hoc Tribunal to hasten the process of its ruling particularly on the validity of the nine-dash lines, described by a Japanese academic recently descried as a prayer for “declaration of rights” rather than an exercise of maritime delimitation, the latter being covered by a Chinese reservation to the jurisdiction of the UNCLOS dispute settlement procedure.
One manner by which the Philippines could utilize the existing arbitration as a means to curtail China from its expansionist desires is through a remedy known as “provisional remedy” provided under Art. 290 (1) of the UNCLOS. Said provision reads: “If a dispute has been duly submitted to a court or tribunal which considers that prima facie it has jurisdiction under this Part or Part XI, section 5, the court or tribunal may prescribe any provisional measures which it considers appropriate under the circumstances to preserve the respective rights of the parties to the dispute or to prevent serious harm to the environment, pending the final decision”.
Case law is replete with instances when Tribunals deciding on issues involving the Law of the Sea have resorted to provisional measures. For instance, the ITLOS, prior to the formation of an Hoc panel headed by Filipino Florentino Feliciano in the Southern Blue Fin Tuna case, issued a provisional order against Japan from further fishing of blue fin tuna in the pacific pending resolution of the arbitration on the merits. Likewise, in MV Saga No. 2, ITLOS issued provisional measures for the immediate release of the vessel and its crew. In the latest case between Netherlands and Russia involving the arrest and charging of Greenpeace activists charged by Russia with piracy, the ITLOS also issued provisional orders for the immediate release of the activists.
The literal provisions of Art 290 of the UNCLOS on provisional remedies require only two elements for the issuance of a provisional order, to wit; prima facie determination of subject matter; two, necessity of preserving rights of the parties pending the final decision.
I suppose the reason why the Philippine legal panel did not ask for provisional measures from the start of its claim is because of China’s specific reservations to the dispute settlement of the UNCLOS which may come to play where a provisional order is asked of the tribunal. Specifically, this relates to the exercise of law enforcement activities arising from the exercise of sovereign rights. Note that the arbitration was finally resorted to by the Philippines after its fishermen were literally barred from fishing in the area of the Panatag shoal. Fishing in the Exclusive Economic Zone is an exercise of sovereign rights, which relates to the exclusive right to explore and exploit natural resources found in the EEZ. Had the Philippines asked at the onset for provisional remedy against China barring Filipino fishermen from fishing in Panatag, the controversy would have fallen on a subject matter expressly reserved by China from the jurisdiction of the tribunal: the sovereign right to fish.
But China’s recent acts have gone beyond law enforcement activities relating to sovereign rights. The building of artificial islands in low tide elevations, such as Mabini reef and Fiery Cross reef, are actual exercise of sovereign rights and do not relate to law enforcement activities. Likewise, its recent use of and resort to the threat to the use of force against the Philippines and Vietnam, coupled with its demand for both claimants to leave the area under their possession, are clear exercise of sovereignty and do not relate to the subject matter reservation of China. Moreover, China’s acts, because they are done pursuant to its disputed nine-dash lines, may be challenged on the basis that the Philippine (would be) prayer for provisional measures, and its prayer on the merits, call for declaration of rights and not maritime delimitation, the latter also excluded by China in its reservations to the UNCLOS dispute settlement procedure.
The bottom line is this: when the UNCLOS required all parties thereto to bring all questions of interpretation and application to the dispute settlement of the Convention, it could not have contemplated that state parties who opted not to participate in these proceedings should be allowed to violate provision of the Convention with impunity more so when they choose not to participate in the compulsory proceedings. Given China’s recent actuations, it’s high time that it is reigned in through a provisional measure.