Tribunal Rules Against Beijing in South China Sea Dispute

Tribunal Rules Against Beijing in South China Sea DisputeTribunal Rules Against Beijing in South China Sea Dispute

Judges at an arbitration tribunal in The Hague, the Netherlands, on Tuesday rejected China’s claims to economic rights across large swathes of the South China Sea. The ruling will be claimed as a victory by the Philippines.

“There was no legal basis for China to claim historic rights to resources within the sea areas falling within the ‘nine-dash line’,” the court said, referring to a demarcation line on a 1947 map of the sea, which is rich in energy, mineral and fishing resources, Reuters reported.

In the 497-page ruling, judges also found that Chinese law enforcement patrols had risked colliding with Philippine fishing vessels in parts of the sea and caused irreparable damage to coral reefs with construction work.

China, which boycotted the case brought by the Philippines, has said it will not be bound by any ruling.

The United States and China regularly conduct military exercises in the area, which is of vital interest to both Beijing and Washington, and have accused each other of provocations as recently as last month.

Influential state-run Chinese newspaper the Global Times said in an editorial on Tuesday that China’s reaction to the ruling “depends on provocation”.

“So far, none of the concerned parties want military confrontation. But all are ratcheting up military preparations,” it said.

US diplomatic, military and intelligence officers braced for the ruling and said China’s reaction to the court’s decisions will largely determine how the Philippines, Vietnam and other Southeast Asian nations, as well as the United States, respond.

If, for example, China accelerates or escalates its military activities in the disputed area, the US and other nations will have little choice but to respond with new and possibly enlarged and multinational maritime freedom of navigation and aerial missions, the US officials said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

Contingency planning for such exercises is already completed or in its final stages, said one of the officials, who quickly added: “We hope it doesn’t come to that.”

Even if Beijing ignores the decision, it is significant as it will be the first time that a legal challenge has been brought in the dispute, which draws in five countries with overlapping claims to some of the world’s most promising oil and gas fields and vital fishing grounds.

It reflects the shifting balance of power in the 3.5-million-square-kilometer sea, where China has been expanding its presence by building artificial islands and dispatching patrol boats that keep Philippine fishing vessels away.

The case, brought by the Philippines in 2013, hinges on the legal status of reefs, rocks and artificial islands in the Scarborough Shoal and Spratly Island Group.

Manila’s 15-point case critically asks the tribunal to rule on the status of China’s so-called “nine-dash line”, a boundary that is the basis for its 69-year-old claim to roughly 85% of the South China Sea.

The tribunal will not decide on matters of territorial sovereignty, but will apply the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in determining which countries can claim economic exploitation rights, based on geographic features.

Under the 1982 UNCLOS, islands grant their owners a 12-nautical-mile radius of sovereign territorial waters.

Manila argued in closed court hearings that none of the islands, shoals and reefs in the Spratlys are large enough to grant an additional 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone for fishing and extracting seabed resources.

Manila also contests China’s effective control of the Scarborough Shoal, a scattering of rocks off the coast of the Philippines’ Luzon Island, seeking a ruling that would show it sits within the Philippines’ EEZ.

The court has no power of enforcement, but a victory for the Philippines could spur Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei, which also have overlapping claims, to file similar cases.

Japan, which is involved in a separate territorial dispute with China in the East China Sea, said its military would closely monitor Chinese activity after the ruling.

“We urge all parties concerned to react in a way that does not raise tensions,” Defense Minister Gen. Nakatani told a briefing in Tokyo. “We will keep a close watch on the situation in the East China Sea.”