MANILA, Philippines — A United Nations arbitration tribunal has convened in The Hague to look into a complaint lodged by the Philippine government questioning the legality of China's massive territorial claims in the South China Sea, Filipino officials said Tuesday.

Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs spokesman Raul Hernandez told a news conference that the five-member tribunal under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea convened on Thursday in the Netherlands and approved a set of rules to look into the legal challenge the Philippines launched against Beijing in January.

China and the Philippines, along with Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam, have overlapping claims across the strategic and resource-rich South China Sea, with Beijing claiming it has sovereignty over virtually all of it. Chinese paramilitary ships and Philippine vessels figured in a tense standoff last year over a disputed shoal, which later came under Chinese control when the Filipinos backed off from the vast fishing area.

There are fears that the territorial conflicts could spark Asia's next major armed conflict.

The Philippines argues in its complaint that China's vast territorial claim, including its occupation of several South China Sea islets and reefs in past years, violate the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea and should be declared invalid. The 1982 U.N. convention was ratified by more than 160 countries — including China and the Philippines — and sets territorial limits for coastal states and aims to govern the use of offshore areas worldwide.

If the tribunal in The Hague declares it has jurisdiction over the case filed by the Philippines, an inquiry would then start.

Filipino officials want the U.N. tribunal to order China to stop violating the country's territorial rights.

China has staunchly opposed attempts to involve third parties or world bodies in the South China Sea disputes, fearing that would weaken its hand. It has demanded one-on-one negotiations with other rival claimant governments, something that would give it advantage due to its sheer size and clout.

Stripes in 7

around the web

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign-up to receive a daily email of today’s top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign up