(BNN/THE HAGUE, Netherlands) – The Philippines’ government officials are most likely exulting at the moment, as the tribunal at The Hague has overruled China’s claim of more than its fair share of the pie – in this case, the South China Sea.
The tribunal on Tuesday ruled that China has no legal basis for claiming nearly 90 percent of the South China Sea as it has done, in an overwhelmingly clean sweep for the Philippines and finalising of Beijing’s loss of a crucial international case.
China’s claims on rocky outcrops, some of which are low-tide elevations exposed only at low tide, cannot be classified under territorial claims, added the international tribunal.
China has been asked to scale back military expansion in the area, on grounds that the Philippines’ sovereign rights have been breached, effectively perforating China’s almost omnipresent “nine-dash” line demarcating its claimed areas in the South China Sea.
Further, Beijing’s expansion, large-scale land reclamation and artificial island construction have upset the ecology due to the rampant destruction of the marine environment and “permanent irreparable harm to the coral reef ecosystem.”
Philippines’ secretary of foreign affairs Perfecto Yasay was ecstatic, saying that the ruling was a “milestone” but also cautioned to employ “restraint and sobriety” among other countries concerned.
China has erupted in anger over the announcement that a large area of the water body is to be classified as either neutral waters or economic zones of other countries, including Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei and Taiwan.
The “ill-founded” ruling has been termed as “naturally null and void,” and Chinese media have claimed that the tribunal had overlooked “basic truths” while “trampling” on international laws and reforms.
If a set of defiant reactions expected from China does come to pass, the ruling will increase frictions in an area, both physical and theoretical, that is already bristling with tension.
A decade-long battle comes to an end
The South China Sea is mostly empty – although it houses hundreds of the small islands, islets and rocks; they are not fit for human settlement. Why then, have nearly every country surrounding the Sea lay some claim to it?
Scientists have said that the seabed could hold 11 billion barrels of oil, 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and minerals – a boon for resource-hungry Asia. However, what is of key value is the sea’s strategic location. Shipping lanes that amount to major arteries of the world trade system pass through it, transporting everything from raw materials to copious amounts of oil.
Asian superpower China has begun to regard the sea as its own backyard, and the arbitration case came about as their land reclamation programme turned rather hostile. Beijing asserts that its intentions are peaceful, but the U.S. and others claim that Beijing’s control could pose threats to the passage of ships.
The territorial dispute over the South China Sea did not blossom overnight – Tuesday’s ruling has marked the legal end of a long-drawn battle that spanned 10 years.
In the year 1947, China drew out an imaginary U-shaped line made of nine dashes, accepted by the Communist Party, covering the area that it laid claims to in the South China Sea – which means nearly the entire South China Sea was demarcated.
However, in 1994, the 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, under which the Philippines has taken China to arbitration, was put into effect after being ratified by 60 countries, including China in 1996. The agreement, till today, defines territorial waters, continental shelves and exclusive economic zones.
In 1995, China began to slowly snake its tendrils around the disputed Mischief Reef, which prompted the Philippines to lodge its first complaint against Beijing through the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
Taking matters legally into its own hands, China submitted its nine-dash line proposal to the United Nations in 2009, stating it “has indisputable sovereignty over the islands in the South China Sea and the adjacent waters.” The move came just as Vietnam and Malaysia sought to ratify their own extensions of continental shelves.
Fast forward to the recent past – after a tense standoff, China takes effective control of Scarborough Shoal, prompting the Philippines to lodge a formal complaint at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague against China’s claims.
China’s position paper in December 2014 claimed that the panel appointed to solve the dispute did not have jurisdiction over the case as it concerned topics such as sovereignty and boundary definition which were not covered by the U.N. convention.
After a heated hearing of the claims in November 2015, in which China did not participate, July 12, 2016 saw the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling that China has no legal basis for claiming much of the South China Sea, prompting approval from the Philippines and rejection from Beijing.
Implications of the present-day ruling
Let’s cut to the present – what does the Tuesday ruling mean?
Legally, the ruling is binding, signalling enormous diplomatic implications for China if the verdict was not abided by, and would “undermine its own position that it is committed to maintaining a rules-based order.”
However, the verdict does not have military backing, as United Nations troops will not be forcing China off Fiery Cross or Mischief Reef, even though the Philippines could choose to go back to the Court and ask for other, stricter measures against China.
Euan Graham, international security program director at Australia’s Lowy Institute has said that “the big question mark about the ruling is who is going to reinforce it, because ultimately it’s a binding judgment, but if China chooses to ignore it it’s very difficult for the Philippines to change the status quo.”
China has reportedly laid out elaborate contingency plans ready for whatever will happen next, and its reaction will be determined by foreign “provocations,” if any, after the ruling, which they have called a “farce.”
The ruling was also a watershed moment for international law, especially as Beijing plans not to roll over and say “You got me!” in the long run. Nearly 40 countries, including the U.S., expect China to abide by the verdict, putting it in a political capital gridlock.
Further, experts opine that the dispute will impact U.S.-China ties as well, especially if the former decides to (finally) ratify the U.N. Law of the Sea.
What does the Philippines have to say?
The Philippines’ lead counsel against China, Paul Reichler, said that the ruling was “also a great victory for the other coastal states along the South China Sea, in particular Vietnam, Indonesia, and Malaysia, because although the award is legally binding only on the two parties, China and the Philippines, it has very strong implications for other coastal states in the South China Sea.”
Although Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay welcomed the decision, Armed Forces of the Philippines declined to comment, leaving the formalities to the Foreign Ministry.
Anti-China activists in the Philippines had lined up back-to-back events to “celebrate” the ruling even ahead of its announcement, with a victory party and the release of balloons in the colours of the country planned over the Manila Bay.
Demands for a “Chexit” increased before the verdict, calling for China to pull its forces out of Scarborough Shoal as well as parts of the Spratly Island chain that are classified under the Philippine’s Special Economic Zone.
Masinloc fisherman were said to be enthused by the ruling, adding that they can now return to catching many large fish in the disputed area, which was impossible for some time because Chinese coast guard ships blocked their boats.
The world has a say
China has rejected the court’s ruling, and has restated its territorial sovereignty, maritime rights and interests over the South China Sea.
However, despite many countries decrying China’s declaration, more countries have reportedly extended their support towards Beijing despite mounting pressure.
The support, confirmed by Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lu Kang, followed Cambodia’s declaration that the country would not support the arbitration court’s decision.
The Department of Foreign Affairs of South Africa has also backed China’s position on the issue, adding that the international community should pull out all stops to maintain regional peace and stability.
Further, Angola, Liberia, Madagascar, Papua New Guinea, Senegal, amongst others, have expressed their support for China’s stance since early July, according to Lu Kang, with Malawi, Tanzania, Zambia, Mauritania, Cameroon, Ethiopia, South Africa, Kenya and Zimbabwe recently adding themselves to the list.
Taiwan slammed the arbitration ruling, adding that they were not consulted on the case despite being claimants in the Spratly Islands.
Further, the country also reiterated their three main principles regarding the conflict – claimants should base their claims on international law and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), resolve their disputes through peaceful means, and respect the freedom of navigation and overflight in the region.
Thailand has called for addressing the conflict through joint efforts, and was backed by Indonesia when requesting peace and stability in the disputed maritime area.
India, when asked for a response, said that they were “studying” the verdict, but did not support or reject it.
Will markets suffer?
The global markets surely witnessed an almost traumatising impact of Brexit, investors now are no doubt worried about the effect of the tribunal ruling on stocks.
However, none of the other countries would risk standing up to China and its military muscle, and would therefore seek to strike individual deals, particularly on the resources.
Further, emerging markets will be roiled by the ruling, with investors required to respond, as emerging markets in Asia would be hit first, with the effects spilling over to others.
However, in general, the markets are not expected to make any sudden moves.
Although the landmark ruling favours the Philippines and other claimants to the area tremendously, it remains to be seen how China, following up on its boycotting of proceedings, will react and respond – the actual show may have just begun.