The South China Sea Ruling – A Political Decision?

“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 2 years 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 2 years 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 2 years 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. worldklaus 2 years 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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  2. Sun Kim 2 years ago

    Even though PCA does not really have influence over China, at least it disreputes the fame of Beijing in the international stage. PCA is more or less to make China’s leaders act carefully more than before. In terms of PRC’s aggressive actions, more involvements of Japan, US, ASEAN, and probably India in the future will moderate China’s behavior. Based on Dr. Chheang Vannarith (former CICP executive director), Japan would increase its involvements in South China Sea. He added that the current Japanese government had already amended the Article 9, stated that Japan can have only defense military but not military for making war against other countries. The Japanese government is waiting for the agreement from its people. Dr. Chheang Vannarith also mentioned that recently 40% of Japanese people supported the amendment, but 60% of the Japanese citizens did not favor for it. However, he strongly believed that the vote for favor would increase soon (Global Politics Fall School Cambodia 2016: Vannarith-Nov-9-2016). For America, it will not change any tendency in terms its policy toward Asia through Pivot. The centrality of Pivot is Southeast Asia. Therefore, I assume that US will not let China dominate South China Sea (SCS). Although the new US president is Trump, who does not care much about spending much money for external affairs of America, SCS gives a lots of benefits for US in terms of trades, natural resources, and strategic areas. For India, as having known, New Delhi has never trusted Beijing. Both parties have had conflicts against each other since the past. India, accordingly,will involve with US and Japan to contain China’s rise in SCS. Eventually, the experiences of the Cold War are enough for ASEAN member states to think what they should perform their foreign policies to survive in the modern world. I do not think that ASEAN will take parts because some stand in China’s side and others are in America’s. ASEAN as a whole will play roles to provide peace and stability for the region.

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  3. Dung Phan 2 years ago

    In fact the US in the past ignored some ruling courts, therefore I don’t think it’s China’s ignorance. It’s just a political game in which supernations decide to handle issues in their ways.

    Even the Philippines which brought the court has started to cooperate with China, apparently no country involved in the sea disputes wants to confront China.
    In the ASEAN summit in Laos several months ago, the Philippines make it clear that it is the business between two countries while other countries like Vietnam, Bruinei, Indonesia chose to stay silent.

    According to Bill Hayton, a specialist in South China Sea, when it comes to SCS, China tends to be more sensitive about nationalism rather than its benefits. Therefore, involved countries are likely to compromise and settle down by bilateral dialogues, not to confront China’s assertiveness.

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  4. Pham Hong Thien Trang 2 years ago

    The dispute of South China Sea is so complicated that all parties couldn’t make a suitable decision. It is likely to be out of control when China government doesn’t want to discuss or negotiate directly with other parties.
    With the rejection from the international tribunal, I think both China and the rest of the world are a little bit surprise. On the international community level, people may support the decision via positive social media reaction and opinion. Because it demonstrates the wrong activities on the waters which encourages other governments like Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia in the progress of protecting their sovereignty. The court makes China more careful when it wants to strengthen its power in the sea.
    But it is just like that which can’t prevent Chinese aggressive actions in the South China Sea in the near future. The problem I’m worried about is that China becomes more and more overwhelming. According to an article from The Diplomat, there are more than 70 countries has published to support China’s position in the South China Sea. Thus, China will not care too much about court rulings.

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