MANILA, Philippines (AP) — The Philippines has asked an international tribunal to declare China's claims to virtually all of the South China Sea invalid, saying Beijing's actions have trampled other nations' rights and damaged vast coral reefs irreversibly.
Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario told the tribunal in The Hague on Tuesday that China's strategy was to gradually take control of the strategic waters without sparking a crisis. Philippine officials provided his statement to journalists in Manila on Wednesday.
"China's positions and behavior have become progressively more aggressive and disconcerting," del Rosario told the tribunal. "Outside observers have referred to this as China's 'salami-slicing' strategy: That is, taking little steps over time, none of which individually is enough to provoke a crisis."
"When these small steps are taken together, however, they reflect China's efforts to slowly consolidate de facto control throughout the South China Sea," he said.
China's aggressive moves, like preventing the Philippines from carrying out oil and gas explorations in what Manila considers its territorial waters and the forcible expulsion of Filipino fishermen from a disputed shoal, prompted Manila to take its conflict to international arbitration. Earlier attempts to resolve the conflict through negotiations, a step that China prefers, proved ineffective, del Rosario said.
The tribunal opened hearings to address China's contention that the five-person arbitration body that operates under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea does not have authority to assume jurisdiction over the Philippine complaints. The tribunal could proceed to look into the complaints against Beijing only if it rules that it has jurisdiction over the Philippine case.
"China opposes any action made by the Philippines to initiate and push ahead with the arbitration," Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said in a news conference in Beijing on Tuesday, adding Manila reneged on an agreement not to take such unilateral steps.
Philippine officials have denied that there was such an agreement, saying Beijing has clearly agreed in the past to resolve the disputes on the basis of international law, including the 1982 U.N. convention, which allows coastal states to exclusively exploit resources within 200 nautical miles of waters from their territory.
China, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan have been contesting ownership of the resource-rich South China Sea. Washington and other countries have expressed concern over China's increasingly assertive actions, including massive island-building that they say have damaged vast coral reefs in the disputed waters. Beijing says fears that it would eventually limit freedom of navigation and overflight to assert its territorial control are unfounded.
Countries territorially at odds with China — Japan, Vietnam, Malaysia — sent observers to the hearings in The Hague. Indonesian and Thai representatives were also observing the proceedings.
Del Rosario said the 1982 U.N. convention, which came into force in 1994 and has been signed by more than 160 states, was a "great equalizer" that smaller nations could invoke to halt powerful nations from trampling their territories. The convention, he suggested, may be undermined if it could not be used to stop China from violating other nations' maritime rights.
"If China can defy the limits placed by the convention on its maritime entitlements in the South China Sea and disregard the entitlements of the Philippines under the convention, then what value is there in the convention for small states parties as regards their bigger, more powerful and better armed neighbors?" he asked.
Associated Press writer Didi Tang in Beijing contributed to this report.