Filipino activists hold placards blasting China's aggressive moves in the South China Sea during a protest outside the Chinese consulate in Manila, the Philippines, July 12, 2016.
An international arbitration court issued a landmark ruling on Tuesday that China has no legal basis for its historical claim to the South China Sea or for interfering with the Philippines’ fishing and oil exploration rights in parts of the South China Sea—a decision that China has said it will ignore.
The tribunal in the Hague, the Netherlands, also ruled that China has no right to resources within its so-called nine-dash demarcation line used to claim 90 percent of the South China Sea, and that it is not entitled to an exclusive economic zone surrounding reefs and atolls in the Spratly Islands because these features did not qualify as islands generating such zones.
China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs immediately issued a statement declaring that the widely expected ruling is “null and void and has no binding force.”
“China neither accepts nor recognizes it,” it said.
China’s defense ministry said it would deploy its armed forces to defend the country’s territorial sovereignty and interests in the South China Sea.
China claims sovereignty over the Spratly Islands—which Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, and Malaysia consider part of their sovereign territory—as well as the Paracel Islands, claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan. The islands are located amid strategic shipping lanes, abundant fishing grounds, and what’s believed to be oil and natural gas reserves under the seabed.
China had boycotted the tribunal’s proceedings, where a panel of five maritime legal experts issued a unanimous decision in the case which the Philippines initiated on Jan. 22, 2013. Their ruling is final and legally binding on both China and the Philippines, but has no enforcement power.
“Accordingly, the tribunal concluded that, as between the Philippines and China, there was no legal basis for China to claim historic rights to resources, in excess of the rights provided for by the Convention [United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea], within the sea areas falling within the ‘nine-dash line,’” said a press release issued by the Permanent Court of Arbitration.
Analysts weigh in
Foreign affairs analysts who have been following China’s assertive moves in the South China Sea, including turning reefs into man-made islands with airstrips and port facilities, say the country’s reaction to the ruling will have an impact on its regional and international relations.
Chinese military analyst Wong Dong based in Macau said that if China does not follow the ruling, this will have far-reaching consequences on the country’s foreign diplomacy.
“Foreign affairs and internal affairs are inseparable, [and] diplomacy is the extension of internal affairs,” he said, adding that China has not abided by the rule of law internally, so it cannot do so in the international arena.
“This will definitely affect its image,” Dong said. “China has the right not to abide the ruling, but the problem is it will affect its international image. This is the cost...The Hague tribunal also needs to consider what it should do in the future if a country does not adhere to its ruling.”
Wu Fei, senior fellow at the Chinese public diplomacy and international relations think tank Chahar Institute, said the tribunal’s decision was expected but that it will serve as a “written test” for both China and the United States.
“I looked at the outcome of the arbitration and felt it just was a written test for all parties involved,” he said. “The U.S. and China need to answer the questions together. For the United States, the question is what is the purpose of your freedom of navigation, and for China, the question is what is the purpose of your island building.”
China has been aggressively grabbing land masses and building artificial islands in the South China Sea and outfitting them with runways and military infrastructure as well as chasing away fishermen from the Philippines and Vietnam from disputed waters.
The United States takes no position on the disputed territorial claims in the South China Sea but is committed to upholding the principle of freedom of navigation under international law. Washington has sailed ships and flown planes in international waters near the shoals that China claims.
Hu Xingdou, an economics professor at the Beijing Institute of Technology, said the ruling will have a negative effect on economic ties between China and Philippines, but it will not have a detrimental long-term effect on trade between China and some large countries.
“The U.S. leader will have a clear mind,” he said, in a reference to whoever becomes the next president in the November elections. “That person knows it is not good to confront China. China also does not want to confront the U.S.,” he said.
Military commentator Zheng Shaoru of Taiwan, which also rejected Tuesday’s ruling, told RFA that China will not change its existing construction guidelines for islands in the South China Sea and may even further increase its military presence there.
“Basically, China will still operate with its established policy in the South China Sea,” he said. “China will continue to improve some of the facilities on the seven artificial islands.”
Zheng also said China will assess the regional military presence of the United States, the Philippines, and various U.S. allies, and decide what will do.
“If the external pressure or military presence is too strong, China will not rule out the stationing of some troops and modern weaponry on the islands.”
Admiral Dennis Blair, chairman and chief executive officer of Sasakawa USA, an American institution that focuses on U.S.-Japan relations, believes that China now faces a critical junction with the ruling because how it reacts to it will indicate its level of commitment to the peaceful resolution of contentious disputes both in the South China Sea and elsewhere.
“Should China continue to disregard the decisions of this tribunal, it will raise serious doubts about whether other nations can trust the country to abide by any of its international obligations,” he wrote in a commentary.
He also pointed out that the ruling makes only a limited contribution to resolving the contentious South China Sea issue.
“It had no jurisdiction to decide any issues of sovereignty over the land features, which continues to be at the heart of many of the disputes,” he wrote in a commentary. “Similarly, it did not decide on issues concerning maritime boundary delimitations. Finally, there is no enforcement mechanism.”
‘Claims don’t hold water’
Andrew S. Erickson, a professor and founding member of the U.S. Naval War College's China Maritime Studies Institute, notes that the tribunal found China has violated at least 14 provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), of which it is a signatory, six International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea rules, and a general rule of international law.
All parties that join UNCLOS agree to the body’s compulsory dispute settlement process
“Fortunately, for nonspecialists, the tribunal’s bottom line is clear: China’s sweeping yet undefined South China Sea claims don’t hold water,” he wrote in an online commentary.
Jerome Cohen, director of the U.S.-Asia Law institute at New York University also issued a commentary on the ruling, suggesting that China could still resolve the issue by restarting negotiations with the Philippines, considering its impact on regional peace.
“China and the Philippines, after the arbitration decision, can renew their negotiations and settle the issues by taking account of the decision [by the court] without formally mentioning it,” he wrote. “[Saving] face is crucial [for China], of course. But with every Beijing propaganda blast, it will become harder to save.”
U.S. State Dept. spokesman John Kirby called the decision “an important contribution to the shared goal of a peaceful resolution to disputes in the South China Sea” and expressed hope that China and the Philippines will comply with their obligations.
“In the aftermath of this important decision, we urge all claimants to avoid provocative statements or actions,” he said in a statement. “This decision can and should serve as a new opportunity to renew efforts to address maritime disputes peacefully.”
“We encourage claimants to clarify their maritime claims in accordance with international law—as reflected in the Law of the Sea Convention—and to work together to manage and resolve their disputes.”
Vietnam, which also has maritime disputes with China in the South China Sea, which it refers to as the East Sea, welcomed the arbitration court’s decision.
"Vietnam strongly supports the resolution of the disputes in the East Sea by peaceful means, including diplomatic and legal processes and refraining from the use or threats to use force, in accordance with international law," said Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Le Hai Binh in a statement.
Vietnam will continue to assert its sovereignty over the Paracel and Spratly Islands, where Chinese forces have attacked several Vietnamese fishing boats over the last few years, and over its internal and territorial waters, as well as stick to its sovereign rights over the 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone and the country’s continental shelf, Binh said.