An international tribunal in the Hague ruled in favor of the Philippines in a maritime dispute Tuesday, concluding that there was no legal basis for China to claim historic rights to the bulk of the South China Sea.
China rejected the decision by the Permanent Court of Arbitration, which is likely to have lasting implications for the resource-rich hot spot, which includes one of the world’s busiest sea lanes.
“China neither accepts nor recognizes it,” the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement.
In a statement released straight after the ruling, the Philippines government said it “strongly affirms its respect for this milestone decision as an important contribution to ongoing disputes in the South China Sea.”
The Tribunal concluded that China’s doesn’t have the right to marine resources within its “nine dash line,” which extends hundreds of miles to the south and east of its island province of Hainan and covers some 90% of the disputed waters.
Natalie Klein, an international law professor at Macquarie Law School in Australia, said the ruling was a “decisive win” for the Philippines.
Analysts said the ruling could heighten friction in a region already bristling with tension, especially if it provokes a defiant reaction from China.
The ruling doesn’t just affect China, but other countries that have competing claims with the nation over large areas of sea.
Malaysia, Taiwan, Vietnam and Brunei have also taken exception to China’s growing presence in the region, and could now be emboldened to take further action.
“If China’s nine-dash line is invalid as to the Philippines, it is equally invalid to those States and, indeed, the rest of the international community,” the lawyers who led the Philippines legal team said in a statement.
Japan, a key U.S. ally and China’s neighbor, issued a statement saying it “strongly expects that the parties’ compliance with this ruling will eventually lead to the peaceful settlement of disputes in the South China Sea.”
How will the U.S. respond?
The United States is also major player in the region and has sent warships and military aircraft around the South China Sea, including near disputed reefs and shoals, citing international law and freedom of movement but triggering harsh warnings from China.
The U.S. takes no position on the territorial disputes in the South China Sea, but has called for an immediate end to land reclamation.
President Barack Obama has called for a peaceful resolution to the dispute and while visiting Vietnam in May, said that big nations shouldn’t bully small ones.
But as China has been at pains to point out, the U.S. isn’t among the 180 countries that have ratified the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) — potentially undermining its clout on this issue.
The Tribunal also found the none of the sea features claimed by China were capable of generating an Exclusive Economic Zone — which gives country maritime rights to resources such as fish, and oil and gas within 200 nautical miles of that land mass.
It deemed they were rocks or low-tide elevations such as reefs, rather than islands.
Because China had no rights to the area as an Exclusive Economic Zone, the tribunal found that some of its activities in the region were in breach of the Philippines’ sovereign rights.
China had violated those rights by interfering in fishing and oil exploration, constructing artificial islands and failing to stop Chinese fisherman from fishing the zone, the ruling said.
The panel found China had caused “severe harm” to coral around the site of its artificial islands. It had also “violated its obligation to preserve and protect fragile ecosystems.”
Chinese fisherman had also killed endangered sea turtles and giant clams “on a substantial scale” — with the full knowledge of China, the tribunal found.
How we got here
The Philippines and China have long been at odds over Beijing’s claims of sovereignty over large swathes of the South China Sea, and Manila took its fight to the Court in 2013.
Tensions have ratcheted up as China has reclaimed land in massive dredging operations, turning sandbars into islands equipped with airfields, ports and lighthouses.
China had refused to participate in the case, which marks the first time an international court has ruled on the region’s mess of overlapping claims.
Feelings were running high on both sides of the dispute in the run-up to the ruling Tuesday.
In the Philippines, the hashtag #CHexit was trending on Twitter — calling for China to leave the South China Sea.
The topic was also the most widely discussed on Chinese social network Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter, with hundreds of thousands of users sharing a map of China with its nine-dash line and the caption “China can’t be one dash less.”
What happens now?
Despite issuing what’s considered a very strong ruling against China, there was nothing in the decision that points to what happens next.
The Tribunal said that it “lacked the jurisdiction to consider the implications of a stand-off” between the Chinese and Philippines military, specifically at Second Thomas Shoal, and said that any resolution of the dispute was “excluded from compulsory settlement.”
The Tribunal hasn’t ordered China to take any particular steps to remedy the situation, dismantle construction on the islands or provide reparations to the Philippines.
And while the ruling is regarded as legally binding, there is no mechanism to enforce it.
“In terms of enforcement, much will depend on what the Philippines is now prepared to assert against China based on the award and China’s responses to those assertions, ” said Klein.