MANILA, Philippines -- The Philippines challenged China's claims to much of the South China Sea at a United Nations tribunal Sunday, seeking to check its neighbor's push for control of disputed waters rich in oil, gas and fish.
The Southeast Asian nation asked the U.N.'s Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague to uphold its right to exploit waters within its 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. The arbitration pleading, almost 4,000 pages long, was submitted electronically.
"It is about defending what is legitimately ours," Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario said at a briefing in Manila. "It is about guaranteeing freedom of navigation for all nations. It is about helping preserve regional peace, security and stability."
The latest move to contain China comes while President Benigno Aquino negotiates a defense pact that would let the U.S. boost its troop presence in the Philippines and build facilities inside military bases there. The Philippines lacks the military muscle to thwart China, which has a defense budget 47 times that of the Philippines. As a U.S. treaty ally, Manila counts on American support in any potential conflict.
"The case could further heighten tensions and prompt China to move to shoals claimed by the Philippines," Ramon Casiple, executive director of the Institute for Political and Electoral Reform in Manila, said Sunday. "Other claimant nations such as Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia are watching how this case will play out."
The filing beat Sunday's deadline set by the U.N. tribunal and came after Chinese vessels a day earlier ordered a civilian Philippine vessel away from Ayungin Shoal, the second incident in the area this month.
"It is about seeking not just any kind of resolution but a just and durable solution grounded in international law," Mr. del Rosario said Sunday.
Eighty-two percent of Filipinos supported the arbitration case against China and 93 percent said the government should defend its territory through lawful means, the foreign affairs department said last month, citing a state-commissioned poll.
Aggression is "contrary to good order" and the U.S. has an obligation to help the Philippines in case of conflict, Adm. Jonathan Greenert, U.S. Navy chief of naval operations, said at a forum in Manila in February.
The Philippines first brought the sea dispute with China to the arbitration tribunal in January last year, saying it had exhausted political and diplomatic avenues to resolve the case.
China's increasingly assertive behavior in disputed waters, including the use of naval vessels to intimidate neighbors, is a concern, Mr. del Rosario said March 21. China won't participate in the arbitration and urged the Philippines to return to negotiations, Hong Lei, a foreign ministry spokesman, said last week.
Chinese ships used water cannons in January to drive Filipino fishermen away from the Scarborough Shoal, the Philippine military said Feb. 24. China warned off two Philippine boats near the Second Thomas Shoal early this month, its Foreign Ministry said March 10.
"China's refusal to join the arbitration will cost it both from a legal standpoint and public opinion view," Mr. Casiple said. "It will be viewed by the global community as a rogue state that doesn't recognize international law."
The Philippines amended its arbitration filing last month to include Ayungin Shoal, Solicitor General Francis Jardeleza said in the briefing Sunday.
"We hope we can get a favorable decision soonest," Mr. Jardeleza said.