Today, the Philippines has initiated arbitral proceedings against China with regard to China’s claims over much of the South China seas. Those Chinese claims have led to serious disputes between China and several of its neighbours in East Asia with those disputes intensifying recently. Both the Philippines and China are parties to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and Part XV of that treaty provides for compulsory arbitral/judicial jurisdiction over disputes arising under that Convention. As is well known, UNCLOS Part XV provides for a choice of procedure and States parties may choose either the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS); the International Court of Justice (ICJ); or an arbitral tribunal as their preferred means for compulsory settlement. In the absence of a choice, arbitration is the default mode of settlement. Also, where the disputing parties have not chosen the same means, the dispute shall be referred to arbitration under annex VII of the Convention (See Art. 287, paras. 1, 3 & 5). As neither the Philippines nor China has made a choice of tribunal, the Philippines has referred this dispute to arbitration. The Philippines notification of the proceedings and its statement of claim can be found here.
Although UNCLOS provides for compulsory jurisdiction over most matters arising under the Convention, Art. 298 provides that a State may at any time declare that it does not accept compulsory jurisdiction over certain specified categories of disputes. In particular, a State may exclude compulsory jurisdiction with respect to “disputes concerning the interpretation or application of articles 15, 74 and 83 relating to sea boundary delimitations, or those involving historic bays or titles”. China did precisely this in 2006. So, the first thing the Philippines would need to do would be to persuade the arbitral tribunal that it has jurisdiction over the case. To do that it would need to show that the dispute it has submitted to the arbitral tribunal falls outside China’s exclusion of jurisdiction under Art. 298(1)(a). This may not be so easy.