Philippines mulls court action against Beijing in South China Sea dispute

Country could file second case with International Court of Arbitration over China’s alleged destruction of coral reefs.

An aerial view of Iroquois Reef, frequented by Filipino fishermen and part of the Philippine 200-mile exclusive economic zone, in the South China Sea, March 9, 2023. [File: Eloisa Lopez/Reuters]
The Philippines says surveys show the seabed at Iroquois Reef has been badly damaged [File: Eloisa Lopez/Reuters]

Manila is exploring legal options against China over its alleged destruction of coral reefs within the Philippines’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the disputed South China Sea.

Manila has accused Beijing of causing environmental damage at Iroquois Reef in the Spratly Islands and is currrently assessing the extent of the damage.

China accuses the Philippines of trying to “create political drama”.

Manila and Beijing have clashed increasingly this year over the South China Sea, with Manila accusing the Chinese coastguard of “dangerous manoeuvres” around Second Thomas Shoal, known as Ayungin Shoal in the Philippines.

China claims almost the entire South China Sea under its controversial nine-dash line and has been building artificial islands on rocky outcrops and islets, some of which have been turned into military outposts. It has also deployed its coastguard, fishing fleets and maritime militia to the disputed waters, which are also claimed all or in part by the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam.

In 2012, after a lengthy standoff, Beijing took control of Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines, leading Manila to take legal action with the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague.

The court ruled in the Philippines’s favour in 2016, saying the nine-dash line – and China’s resulting claim – had no legal basis, but Beijing ignored the decision.

Now the Philippines is evaluating the merits of renewed legal action, including at the PCA, over the environmental damage, Solicitor General Menardo Guevarra said on Thursday. The Department of Foreign Affairs said it would support the decision of Guevarra’s office and any action it decided to take.

Spokeswoman Teresita Daza noted the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) “obliges states to protect and preserve the marine environment”.

China is a party to UNCLOS. Under the law, a country’s EEZ extends 200 nautical miles (370km) from its coast, and Iroquois Reef is about 128 nautical miles (237km) from the Philippines’s Palawan province.

“As clarified by the 2016 arbitral award on the South China Sea, this obligation applies in all maritime areas, both inside the national jurisdiction of states and beyond it,” Daza was quoted as saying by the Philippines News Agency.

“States entering the Philippines’s EEZ and maritime zones, therefore, are likewise obliged to protect and preserve our marine environment.”

The Philippine coastguard earlier said it had logged “extensive” damage not only on the seabed around Iroquois Reef, an area thought to be rich in oil and gas deposits, but also at Sabina Shoal, which lies about 72 nautical miles (133km) northwest of Palawan.

The coastguard said recent surveys showed the marine ecosystem “appeared lifeless” and suggested China’s “illegal and destructive” fishing activities were to blame.

Asked about the allegations at a press conference in Beijing on Thursday afternoon, Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Mao Ning rejected the allegations.

“We urge relevant party of the Philippines to stop creating a political drama from fiction,” she told reporters, saying the Philippines should tow away the Sierra Madre, the ship Manila grounded at Second Thomas Shoal nearly 25 years ago to reinforce its claim to the waters.

Many recent confrontations between China and the Philippines have taken place while Manila has been trying to resupply the sailors stationed on the boat.

Second Thomas Shoal lies about 105 nautical miles (195km) northwest of Palawan.

Source: Al Jazeera