The South China Sea Ruling – A Political Decision?

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“An international tribunal in The Hague overwhelmingly backed the Philippines in a case on the disputed waters of the South China Sea, ruling that rocky outcrops claimed by China – some of which are exposed only at low tide – cannot be used as the basis of territorial claims. It said some of the waters in question are “within the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines, because those areas are not overlapped by any possible entitlement of China”.” (The Guardian)

China has said from the beginning that it wouldn’t accept the ruling of the tribunal, no matter the outcome. But this ignorance doesn’t matter much – there is loss of face, and reputational damage. China has always been interested in demonstrating its rise as peaceful, harmonious, and within the framework of international rules. This claim has been weakened by regional aversion to China’s unilateral moves and now, additionally by the Den Haag ruling.

What does the international community do with this court decision and Beijing’s insistence on moving forward? Is it legitimate and prudent policy to hedge against Chinese assertiveness politically, or even militarily? Or is it more sound to accept that China is now a global power that doesn’t care much about court rulings?

– Prof. Klaus Segbers

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  1. Shen Dingli 3 weeks ago

    At first glance, it looks that China shall accept the PCA ruling on the case of South China Sea. As a party to the UNCLOS, China is obliged to observe the Convention which gives the right to the PCA for judging over the maritime disputes among members.

    Meantime, there exist sovereign dispute between Beijing and Manila. China has claimed all the islands/islets within the Nine Dashed Lines. From Yuan Dynasty it has claimed Huangyan Island (Scarborough Shoals). In 1947 it drew the lines to further state to this effect. The Philippines has indicated in all its constitutions till 1990s that its west most territory ends with Luzon Island, which is east of the Lines. However, by now it has occupied some ten such islets within the Lines. It even used naval ship to arrest Chinese fishermen in and around Huangyan Island.

    The PCA ruling states that Huangyan Island is a low-tide elevation that is entitled to territorial waters. The PCA is not entitled to decide who possesses this sovereign area. The UNCLOS does give the Philippines sole economic rights in its EEZ, but not any sovereign rights. Therefore, Manila’s occupation of those islets constitutes an aggression of Chinese sovereignty.

    Given these, there exist intertwined double disputes over sovereign and maritime rights between China and The Philippines in South China Sea. Suing China for maritime rights while occupying Chinese territories, even the latter situate within The Philippine’s EEZ, undermines Manila’s pursuit of rule of law.

    If The Philippines keeps regarding the UN Charter for non-aggression, it is unqualified to demand others to follow international law. Anyone ignoring The Philippine’s territorial aggression but demanding China’s to accept PCA ruling is either unbalanced or ill-intended.

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  2. Justas Paleckis 3 weeks ago

    China is a gifted student. Tiananmen Square is long forgotten. Much smaller countries than China (at least in terms of population) behave with neighbouring countries or 5-10 thousands kilometres distant countries offhandedly. Why can the future world’s largest economy with significant military potential not also interpret international law and the decisions of the international tribunal in the Hague as it is useful for a great power? After all, international economic, financial and military power centres gradually move to Asia. So I think that there will not be a military response. Economic and other sanctions? Maybe, but only symbolic.

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  3. Alexei Voskressenski 3 weeks ago

    The Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague released its ruling on 12 July 2016 according to which China claimed historic rights inside its nine dash line, which may make the South China Sea a Chinese lake, is extinguished by the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea if those waters are now within the Exclusive Economic Zones of other coastal states. The ruling however did not rule the nine-dash line as illegal or invalid. That means that the coastal states must negotiate over overlapping EEZ and the compromise is possible, and this must be stressed and hailed. The problem is that the practise of the concept of ‘sovereignty’ and ‘extended territorial sea’ limits the concept of ‘freedom of navigation’ in the South China Sea as well as in Malacca Strait , Gibraltar etc. According to Chinese analysts China should concentrate on marine functional cooperation on the South China Sea – being an international outlaw will involve too much costs. Serious analysts believe that China will not interrupt freedom of navigation in the South China Sea because it will be detrimental to China’s hope to become a great maritime trading state which is a key to its economic development. However the outcome is dependent on joint efforts to find a consensus as well as on evolving balance of power between the US and China.

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1 Comment

  1. worldklaus 2 weeks ago

    As China did not participate in the PCA procedure, the Philippines had no choice, then to scale down their claim, in order to still get a valid UNCLOS ruling, despite China’s refusal to participate. Even the sovereignty issue was not ruled on, the outcome will still direct further public attention to China’s increased efforts to enforce the nine-dash-line in the South-China-Sea. But other than media coverage there is not much to gain for the Philippines, as they lack the means to back up their claims by force. The new Philippine president Duterte should be motivated to make a fresh start in regard to the Philippine-Chinese relations, as the Philippines have major domestic security and economic challenges to face and de-escalating the South-China-Sea tensions may help to allocate scarce resources for domestic development. Currently there are some indication that Duterte will pursue a more independent foreign policy, and rely less on the USA for protection. Duterte could use the current UNCLOS ruling as leverage, as China would benefit from direct bilateral negotiations too; the current ruling may cause increasing image problems for China. The shift towards domestic politics could help Duterte to free needed resources for the economic development of the Philippines.

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