South China Sea ruling: Verdict means precious little if parties don’t respect it, actors don’t enforce it

By Prashanth Parameswaran/ 13 July/2016 / straitstimes

The tribunal ruling clarifies issues relating to claims, but next steps for China, the Philippines, Asean, and the US, need to be calibrated

On July 12, the arbitral tribunal adjudicating the Philippines’ South China Sea case against China ruled overwhelmingly in favour of Manila, determining that the extent of several major elements of Beijing’s claim and its efforts to enforce it were unlawful. Though the verdict goes a long way in clarifying aspects of the South China Sea dispute, its implications are less clear.

By any measure, the tribunal’s ruling overwhelmingly – though not fully – favoured the Philippines on several counts.

First, it found that China’s claims to historic rights with its nine-dash line had no basis in international law.

Second, it sided with the Philippines on most of the features in the Spratlys that China claims, finding that these were rocks rather than islands and that they were thus only entitled to 12 nautical miles (nm) of territorial seas, not the 200 nm of exclusive economic zones (EEZs) or continental shelves of islands. This effectively limits Beijing’s expansive claims to just the disputed features and the territorial seas they generate.

Third, it found that Beijing had violated its obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) by causing widespread environmental destruction through its construction of artificial islands and infringing on Philippine sovereign rights by interfering with fishing and petroleum exploration.

While this does go a long way in clarifying some contentious issues related to the South China Sea, the implications of the ruling are less clear.

China and the Philippines are most directly affected as they are the only two countries legally bound by the tribunal’s ruling. For Beijing, though it has already dismissed the ruling, it has a range of options of how it will act in the face of a sweeping rebuke of its position. China could take assertive steps to make its stance clear, including increasing its naval and/or coast guard presence in disputed areas or deploying advanced military assets to the Spratly Islands.

But there are also incentives for Beijing to exercise restraint even if it refuses to accept the ruling, including exploring negotiations with the new Philippine government and minimising tensions abroad ahead of the G-20 Summit it is hosting in early September. Given this, the calibration of China’s moves for the remainder of 2016 will be interesting to watch. Read more…

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