The much-anticipated verdict is out. China was dealt a huge diplomatic blow on Tuesday, July 12, when a UN-backed tribunal in The Hague – the Permanent Court of Arbitration – gave a ruling that rendered its claims on some islands in the South China Sea invalid.
The suit was filed by Philippines, which welcomed the decision.
Beijing, expectedly, is furious. China not only boycotted the proceedings but also had some harsh words for the tribunal. “The award is null and void and has no binding force,” China’s foreign ministry said on its website, reiterating its territorial claims. It also said that China “neither accepts nor recognises” the ruling.
A Filipino activists holds aloft a Philippine flag before a Chinese Coast Guard vessel in the South China Sea.
China claims that the ruling “dishonours international law”.
In a warning to the United States and other countries in South China Sea, President Xi Jinping said that China is not ready to accept any action based on the decision. The ruling stated that Beijing has no control over the territory under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The dispute started with China’s increasing assertiveness in the region. Using a 1948 map, China drew a nine-dash-line encompassing nearly the whole of the South China Sea. The line almost touches the shores of some other countries in the region, most notably Philippines.
South China Sea is strategically vital. It is the route of around a third of the global oil trade. Experts also believe that the seabed could be rich in unexploited oil, gas, and minerals.
The tribunal also held that the Spratly Islands – built on a coral reef by China – is not “capable of generating an exclusive economic zone”.
Some sea areas were therefore definitely in the Philippines’ EEZ, it said. It also accused China of damaging the environment by building Spratly Islands. The tribunal also said that the Spratlys do not fall under the category of islands. “China had caused severe harm to the coral reef environment and violated its obligation to preserve and protect fragile ecosystems and the habitat of depleted, threatened, or endangered species,” the PCA verdict summary stated.
China is now in a bellicose mood. Foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said, “If anyone challenges China’s interests by siding with the award of the arbitration then China will take solemn response.”
United States, on the other hand, has deployed USS Ronald Raegan and other naval vessels in the region.
The US State Department said the ruling was an “important contribution” to resolving regional disputes and China should see it as “final and legally binding”. The case against China was filed in 2013 by Philippines. Though the tribunal has no power of enforcement, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei might now move against China for their claims to the waters.
What is to be expected now?
Experts fear that China might include South China Sea in what Beijing terms ‘air defence identification zone’. This means that no aircraft will be able to fly over the SCS without being interrogated by China. Other possibilities might include faster military construction on the Spratly Islands leading to more aggressive moves by neighbouring countries and US.