MANILA (Reuters) - The Philippines expects an early ruling from the United Nations' tribunal on its arbitration case questioning China's claim on the South China Sea, Manila's foreign minister said on Thursday, in the first public announcement of hopes for a swift outcome.
Friction over the key shipping route has surged as China uses its growing naval might to assert a vast claim over the oil-and-gas rich area more strongly, raising fears of a conflict with other nations bordering the water body.
China, Taiwan and Vietnam have claims on the whole of the South China Sea, while Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines claim only parts of the disputed waters.
Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said the Philippines initiated arbitration proceedings this year after exhausting all political and diplomatic avenues of resolution, and called China's claim on the South China Sea "expansive and excessive".
"Our lead counsel believes that without China's participation, the award will come down faster and may come down by 2014," del Rosario told a group of diplomats and chief executives of top private and public corporations.
"This is a positive development," he added.
Del Rosario earlier told Reuters that going by previous cases, the arbitration case could take three to four years to resolve, insisting the tribunal's decision "will be legally binding on all parties and will not be appealable".
Legal experts say any result will be unenforceable, however, though it will carry moral and political weight.
China says it has no intention of participating in the case, which it has called an attempt by Manila to legalize its occupation of Chinese islands in the South China Sea.
Overlapping claims in the South China Sea - traversed by half the world's shipping tonnage - are one of the region's biggest flashpoints amid China's military build-up and the U.S. strategic "pivot" back to Asia.
The claims of the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei are bisected by China's "nine-dash line" - the historic claim that reaches deep into the maritime heart of Southeast Asia.
Del Rosario also accused China of violating international laws and a non-binding pact in the South China Sea between China and 10 smaller Southeast Asian states, after sending ships to the Scarborough and Second Thomas Shoals.
"China's continuous overwhelming naval and maritime presence in the area is also contributing to the raising of regional tensions," del Rosario added.
He said Manila had until next March 30 to submit its arguments and evidence seeking clarification on China's maritime claims, based on the U.N. Convention of the Law of the Sea.
A diplomat familiar with the arbitration proceedings told Reuters the tribunal would give China six months to respond before holding a hearing and deciding the complaint.
"So, we could actually get an actual ruling by late 2014 or early 2015," the diplomat said, adding it would take time if China changed its mind and decided to join in.
(Reporting by Manuel Mogato; Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in BEIJING; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)