Cartoon by Joseph Alvin Tibudan

Agence France Press (AFP) reported that China has turned down calls by the Philippines for the two nations to bring their conflicting claims in the West Philippine Sea before a United Nations-backed tribunal.

“China always maintains that the South China Sea dispute should be resolved through direct negotiations between directly concerned countries,” AFP quoted China’s foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei as telling reporters.

Lei also said that the controversy should also be dealt with according to “recognized international laws.”

China and the Philippines have overlapping claims to parts of the West Philippine Sea, which is believed to hold vast mineral resources.

Recently, Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario visited China. Upon his return to Manila, he reported that he called for the dispute to go before the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea in his meetings with senior officials.

The tribunal is an independent judicial body established by UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea) to handle disputes.

Del Rosario said he had pointed out that the Philippines’ claims over parts of the West Philippine Sea, including the Spratly islands, were “based on international law, specifically UNCLOS.”

Chinese officials told him, however, that China’s claims were based on “historic rights.”

We are of the opinion that submitting the dispute to the UN-backed tribunal is an option better than China’s direct-negotiations proposal.

One reason is that the UN tribunal has in place established systems and procedures governing resolution of territorial disputes, whereas in the direct-negotiations method, there are no such built-in systems and procedures. This means that before the actual negotiations can take place, preliminary talks will have to be conducted on the systems and procedures to be used.

During the preliminary talks, questions over the parameters of the “recognized international laws” to be followed have to be satisfactorily answered. For example, there is the question of who will preside over the negotiations between the two nations. Another question: If evidence of territorial rights over the disputed islands has to be presented during the negotiations proper, who would look into the authenticity and legal propriety of such evidence?

Still another question: Will a status quo ante be observed while the parties are conducting the negotiations?

If the Philippine proposal calling for the submission of the conflict to the UNbacked tribunal is agreed upon, there would be no such issues to be resolved.

With China’s proposal, procedural kinks would have to be ironed out before the negotiations could begin.

The conduct alone of the pre-negotiations could take a long time.

With the heightened tension in the Spratly islands threatening to explode into a shooting war, there is a keen sense of urgency for an expeditious resolution of the conflict. Any delay in the negotiations could make things moot and academic.