Lawyers for the Philippines face an international court in The Hague on Monday for a second round of oral arguments to drive home the country's point that China's claim over almost the entire South China Sea is illegal.
The five-member arbitral tribunal called a second round of oral arguments to ask the lawyers clarificatory questions on the Philippine position that the court has jurisdiction over the case, which challenges China's occupation of resource-rich reefs in the West Philippine Sea, part of the South China Sea within the Philippines' 370-kilometer exclusive economic zone (EEZ) recognised under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos).
In the first round of oral arguments last week, the Philippine legal team told the court that China was violating Unclos by depriving the Philippines of its right to fish and explore resources within its own EEZ.
The team also made it clear to the court that the Philippines was not asking the tribunal to rule on the sovereignty aspects of the case but only on the entitlements of the claimants to territory in the South China Sea as recognised under Unclos.
The question of sovereignty is a matter for the International Court of Justice to decide.
The lawyers warned that the integrity of Unclos was at stake in the case, which the court should not decline to hear as it would allow China to dominate the 3.5-million-square-kilometer South China Sea.
In a text message from The Hague, deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte said on Saturday that Monday's hearing would "enable the Philippines to further clarify certain points of our case and strengthen our claims" against China.
Presidential Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma said the lawyers for the Philippines were ready for the second round.
Presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda, speaking in an interview on Radyo ng Bayan, said "our panel is really ready. We prepared for this petition for one year, so our lawyers are ready, including Solicitor General Florin Hilbay."
Lacierda said the Philippine side expected a favourable ruling.
China has refused to take part in the proceedings, insisting it has "undisputed sovereignty" over the South China Sea.
Asserting "historic rights" to the sea, China has seized Panatag Shoal (international name: Scarborough Shoal) off Zambales province and seven reefs on the Philippine side of the Spratly archipelago: Kagitingan (Fiery Cross), Calderon (Cuarteron), Burgos (Gaven), Mabini (Johnson South), Panganiban (Mischief), Zamora (Subi) and McKennan (Hughes).
Despite being well within the Philippines' EEZ, the reefs appear on Chinese maps as part of Beijing's territory, demarcated by nine-dash lines that lawyers for the Philippines described to the arbitration tribunal as having "no basis in international law."
China's nine dashes also encompass parts of the South China Sea claimed by Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan.
To stake its extensive claim, China is building artificial islands at the seven Philippine reefs in the Spratlys, it is believed to hand the arbitral court a fait accompli in the event of a ruling for the Philippines.
Recent satellite images showed construction activities going on at the reefs. Construction on Kagitingan Reef includes port and communication facilities, barracks and a 3,000-meter runway, raising fears among the other claimants that China intends to use the artificial islands for military purposes.
The other claimants, Japan and the United States are closely following the proceedings, as China's activities in the South China Sea have raised tensions in the region.
The court has allowed small delegations from Vietnam, Malaysia, Japan, Indonesia and Thailand to observe the proceedings after getting requests from those countries.
The United States, a defence treaty ally of the Philippines, has been sending surveillance ships and aircraft to the contested area, and has said it is considering sending vessels to within 22 km of one of the artificial islands to test China's claims in the South China Sea.
Alan Boyle, one of the foreign lawyers for the Philippines, said he expected a ruling on jurisdiction before the end of July.
A ruling on the merits of the case could take years.
Justices on PH team
Meanwhile, Malacañang defended the decision of Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio and Associate Justice Francis Jardeleza, as well as Sandiganbayan Justice Sarah Fernandez, to join the Philippine delegation to the oral arguments.
In a text message to the Inquirer, Coloma said: "Our understanding is that those from the legislature and the judiciary want to manifest their solidarity with the executive (department) in projecting our government's position."
Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno has said that Carpio and Fernandez should explain why they joined the Philippine delegation, which, with 35 members, critics of the administration found too large.
They must explain
Sereno has been quoted in news reports as saying, "I was not there so I don't know… That is a question they have to answer."
Carpio has been giving lectures on the South China Sea dispute in which he actively engaged audiences in making them understand the conflict. He has also expressed support for UN arbitration as a way of resolving the dispute.
Jardeleza was the solicitor general when the 4,000-page case was filed by the Philippines against China in the arbitral court in 2013. Fernandez was then with the Office of the Solicitor General.