EXPLAINER: Philippines’ 5 arguments vs China

Paterno R. Esmaquel II

This is AI generated summarization, which may have errors. For context, always refer to the full article.

EXPLAINER: Philippines’ 5 arguments vs China
In a nutshell, Rappler explains the Philippines' 5 arguments in its historic case against China over the West Philippine Sea

MANILA, Philippines – The Philippines’ case against China over the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) boils down to 5 basic arguments. 

Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario outlined these claims on Tuesday, July 7, the first day of arguments at The Hague. (READ: Philippines vows to smash China’s strongest argument)

For the oral hearings that run until July 13, we’ve listed these 5 arguments, quoted verbatim from Del Rosario. 

Below each argument, we’ve added our own notes to explain things in a nutshell. We’ve also included links to other stories for further reading and reference.

The Philippines’ arguments revolve around the right to fish, as well as to exploit other resources, in the West Philippine Sea. (READ: PH vs China at The Hague: ‘80% of fish’ at stake)

This right is based on the so-called Constitution for the Oceans, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

Under UNCLOS, a coastal state has the exclusive right to fish within its exclusive economic zone (EEZ), an area 200 nautical miles from the coastal state’s baselines or edges. 

1. China’s ‘historical rights’

ARGUMENT: “First, that China is not entitled to exercise what it refers to as ‘historic rights’ over the waters, seabed, and subsoil beyond the limits of its entitlements under the Convention.”

EXPLANATION: China says the South China Sea has belonged to it for centuries. This is why it claims “historical rights” over the disputed sea.  

Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio of the Philippine Supreme Court, however, says that “even if true,” these historical rights have no bearing on sea disputes under UNCLOS. Carpio explains that UNCLOS “extinguished all historical rights of other states.” This UN convention instead gives each coastal state an EEZ. (READ: Top Philippine judge uses Chinese maps vs China

2. China’s 9-dash line

ARGUMENT: “Second, that the so-called 9-dash line has no basis whatsoever under international law insofar as it purports to define the limits of China’s claim to ‘historic rights.'” 

EXPLANATION: The 9-dash line is China’s demarcation to claim virtually the entire South China Sea. China says this is based on its “historical rights.” 

The Philippines, however, asserts that the 9-dash line is baseless under UNCLOS. This UN convention allows an EEZ, not a 9-dash line. (READ: No such thing as 9-dash line – US envoy)

3. Rocks vs islands 

ARGUMENT: “Third, that the various maritime features relied upon by China as a basis upon which to assert its claims in the South China Sea are not islands that generate entitlement to an exclusive economic zone or continental shelf. Rather, some are ‘rocks’ within the meaning of Article 121, paragraph 3; others are low-tide elevations; and still others are permanently submerged. As a result, none are capable of generating entitlements beyond 12NM (nautical miles), and some generate no entitlements at all. China’s recent massive reclamation activities cannot lawfully change the original nature and character of these features.” 

EXPLANATION: Under UNCLOS, habitable islands can generate a 200-nautical-mile EEZ. Rocks cannot.  

China describes some features in the South China Sea as islands. One of these is Panatag Shoal (Scarborough Shoal), a rocky sandbar. China claims these supposed islands. 

China also says these “islands” generate an EEZ, which could overlap with the EEZ of the Philippines. The problem for the Philippines is, China declared in 2006 that it “does not accept” arbitral jurisdiction when it comes to overlapping EEZs. UNCLOS allows this exception.

This is partly why China says the tribunal at The Hague has no right to hear the Philippine case – because it supposedly involves overlapping EEZs.

“The maritime dispute between the Philippines and China boils down to whether there are overlapping EEZs between the Philippines and China in the West Philippine Sea,” Senior Associate Justice Carpio says.

Carpio, however, explains that “China has no EEZ that overlaps with the Philippines’ EEZ in the Scarborough area.” Carpio also believes an international tribunal “will deny Itu Aba,” the largest island in the Spratlys, an EEZ. (READ: Why China calls it Huangyan Island

The Philippines adds that China’s reclamation activities cannot “lawfully change” rocks into islands.

4. Breach of the law of the sea 

ARGUMENT: “Fourth, that China has breached the Convention by interfering with the Philippines’ exercise of its sovereign rights and jurisdiction.” 

EXPLANATION: China prevents Filipinos from fishing in the West Philippine Sea. UNCLOS, on the other hand, gives Filipinos the exclusive rights to fish within the Philippines’ EEZ in the disputed waters. (READ: PH fisherfolk: Living with Chinese coast guard’s hostility

5. Damage to environment

ARGUMENT: “China has irreversibly damaged the regional marine environment, in breach of UNCLOS, by its destruction of coral reefs in the South China Sea, including areas within the Philippines’ EEZ, by its destructive and hazardous fishing practices, and by its harvesting of endangered species.”

EXPLANATION: China is building artificial islands in the West Philippine Sea. The Philippines says China’s reclamation activities have buried 311 hectares of coral reefs – around 7 times the size of Vatican City. This can mean P4.8 billion ($106.29 million) in lost economic benefits. At the same time, China is accused of poaching. (READ: PH: China ‘irreversibly damaged’ environment

China, for its part, refuses to answer the Philippines’ arguments in arbitration proceedings. It has instead published a position paper debunking the Philippines’ claims. 

In the end, the Philippines says, the case at The Hague is set to provide a long-term solution to the sea dispute. (READ: FULL TEXT: The Philippines’ opening salvo at The Hague)

For Del Rosario, UNCLOS provisions “allow the weak to challenge the powerful on an equal footing, confident in the conviction that principles trump power; that law triumphs over force; and that right prevails over might.” – Rappler.com

Add a comment

Sort by

There are no comments yet. Add your comment to start the conversation.

Summarize this article with AI

How does this make you feel?

Download the Rappler App!
Clothing, Sleeve, Adult


Paterno R. Esmaquel II

Paterno R. Esmaquel II is a senior multimedia reporter covering religion for Rappler. He also teaches journalism at the University of Santo Tomas. For story ideas or feedback, email pat.esmaquel@rappler.com.