China Has No Legal Basis to its Claims in South China Sea: International Tribunal

South China Sea Map

The People’s Republic of China suffered a major blow on Tuesday after an international tribunal ruled that it has no legal basis for its claims to certain areas in the South China Sea.

The Republic of the Philippines filed a lawsuit against China to the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague in January 2013 after a Chinese navy took control of Scarborough Shoal, a submerged chain of reefs and rocks located about 140 miles off the coast of the island of Luzon.

The Philippines accused China of violating the United Nations Convention on the Laws of the Sea (The Convention) by interfering with fishing and petroleum exploration, constructing artificial islands and endangering ships within its exclusive economic zone. The Philippines also accused China of harming the marine environment.

South China Sea Map
Image Source: U.S. Dept. of State

Tribunal’s ruling 

In its ruling, the Tribunal emphasized that it has jurisdiction to consider the dispute between China and the Philippines regarding historic rights and the source of maritime entitlement in the South China.

The Tribunal explained that the Convention comprehensively allocated rights to maritime areas. The Convention considered protections for pre-existing rights, but were not adopted.

According to the Tribunal, China had historic rights to resources in the waters of South China Sea but those rights were “extinguished to the extent they were incompatible with the exclusive economic zones provided for in the Convention.

Additionally, the Tribunal noted that there was no evidence the China had historically exercised exclusive control over the waters or resources of the islands in the South China Sea.

The Tribunal ruled that “there was no legal basis for China to claim historic rights to resources within the sea areas falling within the nine-dash line.”

The Spratly Islands belong to the Philippines

The Tribunal found historical evidence that small groups of fishermen and several Japanese fishing and guano mining enterprises were attempted in the Spratly Islands. Those are transient use and do not constitute inhabitation by a stable community.

According to the Tribunal, none of the Spratly Islands is capable of generating extended maritime zones. It cannot also generate maritime zones collectively.

Since none of the reefs or features claimed by China in the Spratly Islands generate an entitlement to at least 12 nautical mile territorial sea, the Tribunal declared that the Spratly Islands belong to the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines.

China violated the sovereign rights of the Philippines

The Tribunal also found that China violated the sovereign rights of the Philippines in its exclusive economic zones by doing the following:

  • interfering with Philippine fishing and petroleum exploration
  • constructing artificial islands at seven features of the Spratly Islands
  • Failing to prevent Chinese fishermen from fishing in the zone

According to the Tribunal, Filipino fishermen have traditional fishing rights at the Scarborough Shoal. China interfered with their rights by restricting access to the shoal.

Furthermore, the Tribunal ruled that China’s caused severe harm to the coral reef environment and violated its obligation to preserve and protect fragile ecosystems and the habitat of depleted, threatened and endangered species.

Moreover, the Tribal found the vessels of Chinese law enforcement unlawfully created a serious risk of collision when they physically obstructed Philippine vessels.

A milestone decision

Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr. said the Philippines respect the Tribunal’s “milestone decision,” which upholds the international law particularly the 1982 UNCLOS.

He also reiterated that the Philippines’ abiding commitment in pursuing peaceful resolutions and management of disputes, promoting and enhancing peace and stability in the region.

A slap in the face

The Washington Post quoted Shen Dingli, a professor of international relations at Fudan University, saying, “It’s a slap in the face for China. It’s a lose-lose situation for China — take action and risk armed confrontation or, while reiterating its tough stance, stop building and fishing, which is what the ruling asks.”

On the other hand, Chen Xiangmiao, an assistant research fellow at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies in China commented, “The nine-dash line is the foundation of China’s claim to sovereignty activities in the South China Sea, which has been smashed by the ruling. It is highly possible that the Philippines will expand its presence in the South China Sea, which will create conflict.

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