Tribunal rejects China’s claims to South China Sea

China | Beijing calls the ruling ‘null’ and ‘void,’ with ‘no binding force’
by June Cheng
Posted 7/12/16, 08:51 am

In a blow to China’s maritime ambitions, a United Nations tribunal ruled today the communist country has “no legal basis” for its claims in the South China Sea, a resource-rich water through which a third of the world’s trade passes. China, which has refused to participate in the arbitration process from the beginning, claimed it “does not accept or acknowledge” the tribunal or its ruling.

China claims historic rights to 90 percent of the South China Sea—including its “islands” and resources—based on a map from the late 1940s that depicts a nine-dash line enveloping much of the sea. As China has grown economically and militarily in recent years, it has set its sights on the seas, creating 3,200 acres of artificial islands outfitted with airstrips, radar facilities, and ports to establish its naval dominance in the region. Foreign ships and planes that get too close are shooed away.

But under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), of which China is a signatory, countries have rights to the 12 miles beyond their shore as well as a 200-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) that gives them rights to explore and use marine resources. China’s nine-dash claim encroaches on the EEZs of the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, and Vietnam. In the past decade, the dispute has caused clashes between Chinese vessels and the boats of other Southeast Asian countries.

UNCLOS does not have the power to rule on the sovereignty of land but still dealt China a crushing blow Tuesday with three major decisions: It decided China has no legal basis “to claim historic rights to resources within the sea areas falling within the ‘nine-dash line.’” It also determined the reefs, rocks, atolls, and man-made islands in the South China Sea could not be classified as islands since they could not “sustain human habitation or economic life of their own.” Thus they could not be used to claim a 200-mile EEZ. Finally it found China unlawfully violated the Philippines’ sovereign rights by interfering with Philippine fishing and oil exploration, creating artificial islands, and preventing fishermen from fishing in the area.

The ruling also noted China destroyed marine environments by constructing seven artificial islands atop coral reefs and that the communist country “aggravated the dispute.” China has consistently criticized the tribunal and called its arbitration a “farce.” In the days leading up to the decision, China flexed its power by holding a week of military drills in the South China Sea. Immediately following the ruling’s announcement, China’s mouthpiece, Xinhua News, tweeted “NULL, VOID, NO BINDING FORCE. China neither accepts nor recognizes award of #SouthChinaSea arbitration.” The tweet is directed at foreigners, as Twitter is banned on the mainland.

The Philippines welcomed the ruling, calling it a “milestone decision” in the decades-long dispute and reiterated its desire for “peace and stability in the region,” according to a statement by the Department of Foreign Affairs. Throughout the process, the United States has backed the Philippines, calling for all parties to respect the tribunal’s decision, although the U.S. is not a signatory of UNCLOS. Japan also has a vested interest in the tribunal’s decision, as its survival depends heavily on freely passing through those waters.

An estimated $4.5 trillion in trade passes through the South China Sea annually.

June Cheng

June is the East Asia correspondent for WORLD Magazine. Follow June on Twitter @JuneCheng_World.

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