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22 October 2015 – Before a crowd of academics, students, diplomats and community members, at the University of British Columbia’s (UBC) Centre for Southeast Asian Studies last October 09, Philippine Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonio T. Carpio slammed China’s unwelcome activities in the South China Sea as he expounded on the case filed by the Philippines before an arbitral panel of the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea (ITLOS).

Calling China’s actions a “grand theft of the global commons,” Carpio alleged that China’s claim over much of the South China Sea, represented by the “Nine-Dash Line”, constitutes numerous violations of the United Nations Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to which the Asian power is signatory.

Carpio also detailed what he called as China’s “creeping invasion” in the region, including its seizure of several disputed areas like the Mischief Reef, Scarborough Shoal, which are also claimed by the Philippines, and the building of installations and reclamation projects in several other land features in the Sea.

Carpio said China’s claim to “indisputable sovereignty” over the Nine-Dash Line area represents a threat to peace, security and the freedom of navigation in the region. “This has a potential to overturn the UNCLOS,” he said.

On the other hand, Carpio explained that the case brought by the Philippines before ITLOS is not about a territorial dispute, but an action to uphold and enforce the Philippines’s sovereign rights and maritime entitlements in the region under the UNCLOS.

He said China’s claim to “indisputable sovereignty” over the area enclosed by the Nine-Dash Line violates several provisions of the UNCLOS, including the Philippines’ and other claimant countries’ entitlement to a 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ).  “China’s Nine-Dash Line gobbles up the EEZs of other countries,” he said.

Moreover, Carpio said China’s claim to a vast expanse of the sea, including high seas, which UNCLOS considers as “common heritage of mankind,” is anchored not on islands or rocks but mostly low-tide elevations (LTEs) to which the UNCLOS does not ascribe any rights.

China’s reliance on “historic rights,” Carpio added, has no basis in international law. And even if there was, he said, China has not proved from maps and historical records that it considers the area as part of its territory.

On the contrary, Carpio said Chinese maps have always indicated Hainan as China’s southernmost extent, while old Philippine maps, such as the Murillo-Velarde map, have named areas like “Panakot Shoal” and “Bajo de Masinloc” (now Scarborough Shoal) as part of Philippine territory. 

Carpio likewise lamented the damage to the environment brought about by China’s recent activity. “China has destroyed 17 reefs critical to the preservation of the marine ecosystem and biodiversity,” he said.

Carpio was joined on the panel by two academic experts: Dr. Richard Paisley, director of the UBC Global Transboundary International Waters, and Dr. Pitman Potter, a professor of law at the Allard School of Law and HSBC Chair in Asian Research at UBC’s Institute of Asian Research.

Dr. Paisley, among others, stressed the need for governance of international waters, including fresh water, international ground water, and 18 large marine ecosystems. He also called on claimant countries to “stop the zero-sum game,” and instead work together to build an international peace park in the region,  negotiate and avoid litigation as much as possible.

For his part, Dr. Potter said the Philippines deserves credit for resorting to legal action, but regretted that “it’s usually the small and the weak who do so, not the ‘big ones.’” He said claimant counties should not mind “diminishing” their sovereignty in certain cases in order to achieve certain collective goals.

A crowd of nearly a hundred turned out on a Friday night to listen to the presentations. END

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