REDWOOD CITY, Calif. – Some might have thought the Philippines had it easy winning its case against China before the United Nations tribunal court.
After all, from the get-go, Beijing refused to participate in proceedings that addressed its claims in the West Philippine Sea.
But the Washington DC-based American attorney who served as chief legal counsel for Manila, Paul Reichler, said China’s boycott made it actually harder for the Philippines because it turned the tribunal into counsels for Beijing.
Reichler said it became the tribunal’s job to develop evidence that China would have presented.
But he stayed positive. He said, “From the very beginning, I did believe that the Philippines had a very strong case. And the reason is, its legal rights in the West Philippine Sea are very clearly established by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea to which China and the Philippines are parties, along with the 180 other states.”
The ruling said China’s claims in the West Philippine Sea are invalid. But Reichler admitted it does not address the sovereignty of any islands in the disputed areas.
He reasoned, “That would be outside the jurisdiction of the tribunal, which was established under the law of the sea convention. The law of the sea convention does not address sovereignty over land territory. So when we talk about territory, we talk about maritime space, the sea itself and the underlying seabed. and yes, the ruling makes very clear that the Philippines is fully entitled to a 200 mile exclusive economic zone.”
While China has rejected the ruling, which is unenforceable, Reichler said China could still end up succumbing to international pressure. He pointed out, “It is legally binding. It is a statement of law. It is a statement of rights and legal obligations. There are enormous pressures on all states to ultimately comply with the rulings of the international court.”
Reichler believes Beijing will come to the conclusion that China’s best interests are served by reaching an accommodation with all neighboring states involved in the territorial dispute.
“Eventually, there will be successful negotiations and those negotiations can only be successful if the rights of all parties are respected and that means the rights of the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and others — as well as the rights of China are respected,” he stated.
Reichler said now is the time to reflect, analyze and determine the best way forward for the Philippines.
He expressed, “That is for the Philippine government to determine, not for any outside lawyers, least of all foreigners. The credit really goes to the government of the Philippines — both the previous government and the current government for bringing the case forward…to persevere and to exalt the rule of law over the rule of might or force.”