An international United Nations-backed tribunal, the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague, ruled in favor of The Philippines and against China’s claims to rights in the South China Sea. The court found there was no legal basis for historic rights to economic resources by Beijing which therefore has violated The Philippines’ sovereign rights and Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). The Philippines Foreign Ministry welcomed “this decision that upholds international law, particularly the 1982 United Nations Law of the Sea Convention (UNCLOS), as an important contribution to ongoing efforts in addressing disputes in the South China Sea.”
Analysts interpreted this long-awaited ruling as a setback for Chinese foreign and military policies in Asia. After three years, two hearings and around 4,000 pages of evidence, the PCA’s ruling may have significant legal implications of what a reef really is and what rights it gives; meaning that it could clearly complicate further military buildup by Beijing in the South China Sea. However, local sources told Cyceon, China’s military might is so superior compared with its neighbors’ that, aside from US-backed alliance, it has still the capacity to act freely without fearing any strong response on behalf of the UN or from a country like The Philippines.
Rather than in operational terms, the PCA ruling’s relevance stems from both its international and legal character although Chinese officials said they don’t accept and don’t recognize the ruling, putting forward their nine-dash line issued in 1949 and that predated UNCLOS by several decades. “The arbitration case is nothing but a political farce that is illegal,” a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said. The US Department of State replied that China has no choice but to comply given that “when joining the UNCLOS, parties agree to the UNCLOS’ compulsory dispute settlement process to resolve disputes.”
As a result, next time China makes a move in disputed areas, China may think more about likely negative consequences on its relations with its Asian counterparts, Indonesia for instance, and on its international image. The South China Sea remains a major risk of military conflict in the next decades as, in addition to the sovereignty issue, it is the route for over half of the world’s commercial shipping and is said to contain significant natural resources.