South China Sea after the Tribunal Ruling: Where Do We Go from Here?

On July 12, the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague handed down perhaps the most long awaited finding in its history. After nearly four years of deliberation, the Court ruled on several South China Sea issues, based on a case filed by the Philippines against the People’s Republic of China. On issue after issue, the Court came down overwhelmingly in favor of the Philippine position.

Perhaps most centrally, the Court concluded that China’s “9-dash line,” which Beijing regularly references with regard to its claims in the South China Sea, does not grant it historic claims to the resources in those waters. The Court also ruled on the legal status of each of the terrain features in the Spratly Islands area that the Philippines had incorporated in its case. In doing so, it concluded that none of them is, in fact, an “island” in the legal sense, and none is entitled to a 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ). At most, the Court said, some merit a 12 nautical mile territorial sea zone.

The Court went on to determine that, as some areas of the South China Sea are within the Philippines EEZ (measured from the main Philippine archipelago), Chinese activities had violated Philippine sovereign rights. This included the construction of artificial islands (a major source of concern). In short, China’s legal standing for its actions in the South China Sea, within the context of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), were minimal.

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