The Philippines' UNCLOS Claim and the PR Battle Against China

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As expected, Philippine Secretary of Foreign Affairs Albert del Rosario announced Sunday that the Philippines has submitted a memorial seeking a ruling on China’s “nine dash line” from the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague. The Philippines seeks to have China’s claim to much of the South China Sea, including several features within the Philippine Exclusive Economic Zone, declared invalid under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. The case would be the first time international legal experts formally consider the validity of China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea.

According to Rosario, the memorial is nearly 4,000 pages in length, including Manila’s analysis of applicable laws, the “specific relief sought by the Philippines,” and documentary evidence and maps designed to back up Philippine claims. Rosario ended his statement by saying:

With firm conviction, the ultimate purpose of the Memorial is our national interest. It is about defending what is legitimately ours. It is about securing our children’s future. It is about guaranteeing freedom of navigation for all nations. It is about helping to preserve regional peace, security and stability. And finally, it is about seeking not just any kind of resolution but a just and durable solution grounded on International Law.

While there have been many reports on China’s PR battle against Japan, few have noticed that the Philippines is also attempting to defend its territorial dispute in the court of public opinion. The move to file a request for arbitration in UNCLOS is part of this gambit. Thus, Rosario’s final statement on the arbitration, while it acknowledges the paramount importance of the Philippines’ “national interest,” also seeks to claim the moral high ground by painting the case as a milestone in regional security and international law. By filing such a case, Manila not only hopes to win a favorable ruling, but wants to paint itself as a positive force in the region.

Philippine leaders knew that China would not participate in the arbitration process by submitting a counter-claim, making a Philippine victory much more likely. While such a ruling would do nothing to change the situation on the ground, it would be a PR victory for the Philippines, allowing Manila to claim its position is internationally sanctioned. The PR aspect of the arbitration claim is easily apparent from the Department of Foreign Affairs Website, which prominently features a link to a colorful newsletter on “The West Philippine Sea Arbitration.” This document prominently features quotes from international experts affirming the symbolic and legal value of the arbitration—both showcasing previous PR gains and clearly hoping to sway more to the Philippine point of view.

But the UNCLOS arbitration is only one part of the Philippines strategy. There have also been more pointed attempts to court international journalists. Earlier this year, President Benigno Aquino held a 90-minute interview with journalists in the Presidential Palace. During the interview, he compared China to World War II-era Germany, with the Philippines playing the part of Czechoslovakia. Accordingly, he argued against appeasing China by giving in to its territorial demands. “At what point do you say, ‘Enough is enough’? Well, the world has to say it — remember that the Sudetenland was given in an attempt to appease Hitler to prevent World War II,” Aquino said.

The Philippines has made other outreaches to foreign journalists, including involving them directly in a confrontation over disputed territories. Reuters reported that international media members were invited aboard a Philippine ship transporting supplies to a military outpost on the disputed Second Thomas Shoal. After successfully avoiding the Chinese ships blockading the shoal, the Philippine captain told Reuters, “If we didn’t change direction, if we didn’t change course, then we would have collided with them.” Journalists also noted that, during the voyage, aircraft from the U.S., the Philippines, and China all flew above the Philippine boat. In addition to providing a chance for the Philippine government to showcase its claims, the inclusion of journalists may also have prevented a stronger Chinese response to the Philippine supply run.

China responded angrily to each of these gambits. Most recently, in Monday’s press conference, Hong also decried the “reporting trip” to Second Thomas Shoal as “a deliberately schemed activity with the purpose of further hyping up the issue of the Ren’ai Reef … serving its attempt to illegally snatch the Ren’ai Reef which is China’s territory.” Hong added, “China will by no means allow the Philippine side to seize the Ren’ai Reef [Second Thomas Shoal] in any form, nor will China allow it to build facilities on the Ren’ai Reef in defiance of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC). The Philippine side will have to take the consequences caused by its provocative actions.”

On Sunday, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei also issued a special statement on the Philippine request for arbitration. First, Hong reiterated China’s position that “China has indisputable sovereignty over the Nansha Islands [Spratly Islands] and their adjacent waters.” “No matter how the Philippine memorial is packaged,” Hong said, “the direct cause of the dispute between China and the Philippines is the latter’s illegal occupation of some of China’s islands and reefs in the South China Sea.”

Hong also repeated China’s opposition to international arbitration over these issues, given China’s preference for “direct negotiations with countries concerned.” Hong argued that, by submitting the case for arbitration, the Philippines was in violation of previous agreements to solve issues bilaterally, including the 2002 ASEAN Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea. “China urges the Philippines to comprehensively and effectively implement the consensus repeatedly reaffirmed between the two sides and the DOC, and return to the right track of settling the disputes through bilateral negotiations,” Hong concluded.

Despite China’s opposition, the UNCLOS-based arbitration will move forward, and could have an impact on all other South China Sea disputes. For one thing, the Philippines is seeking clarification on whether partially-submerged features (such as the Scarborough Shoal) can be used as the basis for a full EEZ (200 nautical miles) or only a “territorial sea” of 12 nautical miles. Such answers could have important legal ramifications for other claims in the South China Sea, besides the Philippines-China disputes. However, Rosario has said he does not expect a ruling on the case before the end of 2015—leaving plenty of time for the PR war to continue.

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