China’s claims of sovereignty in the South China Sea were dealt a blow Thursday after an international tribunal ruled that it had the power to hear a case brought by the Philippines over disputed islands.
Manila has insisted the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, which the Philippines and China have both ratified, should be used to resolve the dispute, which has triggered growing international concern.
But China has refused to participate in the proceedings, arguing the tribunal — based in The Hague and known as the Permanent Court of Arbitration — had no jurisdiction over the case.
“Reviewing the claims submitted by the Philippines, the tribunal has rejected the argument” by China that the “dispute is actually about sovereignty over the islands in the South China Sea and therefore beyond the tribunal's jurisdiction,” the court said in a statement.
Instead, the court ruled the case reflects “disputes between the two states concerning the interpretation or application of the Convention” — something that falls within its remit.
China insists it has sovereign rights to nearly all of the South China Sea, a strategic waterway through which about a third of all the world's traded oil passes.
The disputed waters — claimed in part by Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and others — have also become the stage for a struggle for regional dominance between Beijing and Washington, the world's two largest economic and military powers.
Following a standoff between Chinese ships and the Filipino Navy in 2012, China took control of a rich fishing ground called Scarborough Shoal that is within the Philippines' exclusive economic zone. China has also undertaken giant reclamation activities raising fears it will use artificial islands to build new military outposts close to the Philippines and other claimants.
Earlier this week, a U.S. warship sailed close to man-made islands near the Spratlys, prompting stern warnings by Beijing over what it saw as a “dangerous provocation.”
The tribunal in the Hague — set up in 1899 to resolve international disputes between countries — stressed Thursday its ruling did not yet go to the heart of the merits of Manila's case, which was first filed in 2013.
A new hearing will now be held behind closed doors, and a final ruling is not expected until next year. The tribunal agreed it would take up seven of the 15 submissions made by Manila, in particular whether Scarborough Shoal and low-tide areas like Mischief Reef can be considered islands.
It will also mull whether China has interfered with Philippine fishing activities at Scarborough Shoal.
But it set aside seven more pointed claims mainly accusing Beijing of acting unlawfully to be considered at the next hearing on the case's merits.
The tribunal also told Manila to narrow down the scope of its final request that a judges order China “desist from further unlawful claims and activities.”
China has said it will not abide by any ruling. But the Philippines hopes a judgment in its favor will pressure China into making concessions.
The Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs said in a statement: "We welcome the decision of the Arbitral Tribunal that it has jurisdiction over our case. We look forward to the tribunal's further hearing on the merits of the case."
State Department spokesman John Kirby said the U.S. does not take a position on the competing sovereignty claims in the South China Sea, but it opposes coercion and wants all of the disputes to be resolved "peacefully, diplomatically and through international legal mechanisms such as arbitration."
Top U.S. diplomat for East Asia, Daniel Russel, said that when the tribunal issues its final decision, there would be an international expectation that China would not flout its obligations under the convention.
Al Jazeera with wire services