South China Sea Ruling Is In: Philippines Win, China Loses

The contentious situation in the South China Sea reached a turning point Tuesday when the long-awaited and much-publicized international tribunal hearing at the Hague came back with its ruling. The Permanent Court of Arbitration backed the Philippines, who brought the case forward, overwhelmingly ruling against Chinese claims to rights in the South China Sea.

Nations surrounding the region in the South China Sea – including the Philippines and China – have been enveloped in this bickering for years, each laying their claim to the advantageous set of islands, coral reefs, and lagoons sprawled in waters rich with fish and potential oil and gas reserves.

Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei, Taiwan, and Indonesia also make territorial claims in the region, but the quarrel between China and the Philippines has recently hogged the spotlight.

The island nation brought suit against China in February 2013 – appealing to international law and using the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea as its platform – over diplomatic disputes in the area, particularly the Scarborough Shoal and Spratly Islands. The Philippines asserts that China’s “nine-dash line”, the demarcation point which the Chinese government uses for their claims, is unlawful under UNCLOS, of which both countries are signatories.

The Permanent Court of Arbitration determined Tuesday that Beijing had violated the Philippines’ sovereign rights, and the Asian powerhouse had caused “severe harm to the coral reef environment” by building artificial islands in the sea.  

The court said there was no evidence that China had “historically exercised exclusive control over the waters or resources,” BBC News wrote.

The international tribunal was deciding on seven of fifteen points brought by the Philippines.

BBC News lays out some of the hearing’s key findings:

  • Fishermen from the Philippines and China both had fishing rights around the disputed Scarborough Shoal area, and China had interfered by restricting access
  • China had “destroyed evidence of the natural condition of features in the South China Sea” that formed part of the dispute
  • Transient use of features above water did not constitute inhabitation – one of the key conditions for claiming land rights of 200 nautical miles, rather than the 12 miles granted for rocks visible at high tide

As previously announced in the months, weeks, and days leading up to the tribunal, Beijing says the court’s ruling is baseless, that China “doesn’t care” about the result.

State-run agency Xinhua News said that “as the panel has no jurisdiction, its decision is naturally null and void.”

In living up to his declaration that China will ignore the Hague’s ruling, Chinese President Xi Jinping made this remark: “China’s territorial sovereignty and marine rights in the South China Sea will not be affected by the so-called Philippines South China Sea ruling in any way.”

Xi continued, saying his country was “determined to maintain peace and stability” and committed to resolve the conflict “through negotiations based on respects to historical facts and according to international laws”.

While China has chosen denial as its response strategy, the Philippines is relieved by the Permanent Court of the Arbitration’s ruling. Philippe Sands, a lawyer on the Philippines side of the case, said it was a “clear and unanimous judgement that upholds the rule of law and the rights claimed by the Philippines”.