Tribunal rejects China's sea claims

UN-backed panel says China has no historic rights to resources in South China Sea

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The Philippines' chief lawyer says despite China's vow to ignore an arbitration court ruling that China has no historic title over the waters of the South China Sea, the country's leaders will eventually choose diplomacy.
Protesters hurling flowers while chanting anti-Chinese slogans during a rally in Manila over the South China Sea row yesterday.
Protesters hurling flowers while chanting anti-Chinese slogans during a rally in Manila over the South China Sea row yesterday. PHOTO: REUTERS

A United Nations-backed arbitral tribunal has determined that there is no legal basis to China's expansive claims to the South China Sea, in a strongly worded and sweeping ruling that surprised many observers and drew a swift rejection from Beijing.

The tribunal yesterday released its legally binding award on an arbitration case brought by the Philippines against China's claims, in which it invalidated the "nine-dash line" on which China has based its claims. The five-man tribunal based at The Hague ruled that there was no legal basis for China to claim historic rights to resources in the sea areas within the line.

It said there is no evidence that China "had historically exercised exclusive control over the waters or its resources", although its navigators and fishermen, as well as those of other states, had made use of the islands in the areas.

It further invalidated the U-shaped nine-dash line, which covers two-thirds of the South China Sea, by ruling that land forms that China claims in the Spratly chain of islands cannot sustain human habitation or economic life. They are therefore not entitled to extended maritime zones, that is, 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zones (EEZ).

China yesterday dismissed the ruling, with Foreign Minister Wang Yi calling the tribunal a "political farce" that has "put the dispute into dangerous territory of worsening tensions and confrontation".

The Philippines was measured in its response, calling for "restraint and sobriety", even as anti-China activists celebrated by releasing thousands of balloons in the colours of the national flag.

Sounding conciliatory, Philippine Foreign Minister Perfecto Yasay said his country "reiterates its abiding commitment to efforts to pursue the peaceful resolution and management of disputes with a view to promoting and enhancing peace and stability in the region".

Manila had brought the case against China in 2013, months after its giant neighbour wrested control of Scarborough Shoal, within the Asean state's EEZ, and prevented Philippine fishermen from fishing there. The tribunal found that China had violated the traditional fishing rights of Filipinos by not allowing them to fish at the shoal.

In 2014, China began building artificial islands on several reefs that it occupies in the Spratly Islands and placing military installations, including airstrips, on them. This led the United States to start freedom of navigation operations to challenge what it saw as China's excessive maritime claims, adding to tensions in the South China Sea.

The tribunal also addressed China's land reclamation since the beginning of the arbitration. It said China has caused damage to the coral reef ecosystem and permanently destroyed evidence of the natural condition of the land forms as a result, and has therefore "violated its obligations to refrain from aggravating or extending" the disputes.

Analysts were surprised by what they saw as a bold and sweeping ruling. This "will put greater pressure on China to respond, though 'how' is uncertain", said Massachusetts Institute of Technology political science professor M. Taylor Fravel.

Countries in the region reacted by calling for calm and restraint.

Singapore urged "all parties to fully respect legal and diplomatic processes", while Indonesia encouraged "all claimant states to resume talks on the dispute peacefully and in accordance with international law". The White House called on all claimants to "avoid provocative statements or actions" and stressed that it strongly supported the rule of law. Asean did not put out a joint statement, but said through its official Twitter account that member states reiterated their commitment to the early conclusion of a regional Code of Conduct to manage disputes.

China's nine-dash line claims: Invalid

In what is a major blow to China, the Arbitral Tribunal that ruled on the case brought by the Philippines against China's claims in the South China Sea has invalidated the "nine-dash line" on which these claims are based.


'Islands' in Spratlys: There aren't any

None of the Spratly Islands is an island, the Arbitral Tribunal at The Hague ruled yesterday.

The Philippines had sought, among other things, a ruling on whether certain maritime features claimed by both China and the Philippines are islands, rocks or low-tide elevations under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos).


Philippines' rights to EEZ: Valid

Since none of the land features claimed by China on the Spratly Islands is entitled to exclusive economic zones (EEZ), the Arbitral Tribunal said it could declare that certain sea areas are within the Philippines' EEZ.


Chinese activities: Harmful to environment

The Arbitral Tribunal at The Hague had strong words for how China's actions have affected the marine environment.

In the past two years, China has dredged rock and sand to transform seven reefs in the South China Sea's Spratly chain and constructed port facilities, military buildings and airstrips.


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 13, 2016, with the headline Tribunal rejects China's sea claims. Subscribe