- RoundtableThe Arbitral Tribunal’s Ruling on the South China Sea — Implications and Regional Responses
South China Sea dispute, Spratly Islands, Arbitral Tribunal award, China, Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, Indonesia
Three and a half years after the Philippines took the unprecedented step of challenging the legal basis of China’s expansive maritime claims in the South China Sea, the Arbitral Tribunal established under compulsory dispute resolution provisions contained in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and based at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, issued its final ruling on 12 July 2016.
The award was far more comprehensive and decisive than many legal experts had predicted: the Philippines won 14 of the 15 disputes under consideration. The Tribunal was not mandated to adjudicate on the sovereignty of hundreds of geographical features which make up the Spratly archipelago, but instead focused on maritime rights and entitlements in the South China Sea. The judges issued four major decisions. First, China’s “historic rights” claim to living and non-living resources within the nine-dash line that appears on Chinese maps of the South China Sea is incompatible with UNCLOS. Second, that none of the Spratly features are islands entitled to a 200 nautical mile (nm) exclusive economic zone (EEZ); they are either rocks, entitled only to a 12 nm territorial sea, or low-tide elevations with no associated maritime zones. Third, that Beijing had violated the Philippines’ sovereign rights in its EEZ by harassing fishing boats and survey vessels, and by undertaking massive reclamation work at several Chinese-occupied features determined to be within the EEZ of the Philippines. Fourth, that China’s reclamation activities had caused irreparable damage to fragile reef ecosystems, and had aggravated the dispute while legal proceedings were underway. The [End Page 337] award represented an almost total victory for the Philippines and a major defeat for China.
For this Roundtable, the editors of Contemporary Southeast Asia asked seven leading experts on the South China Sea to consider the legal and geopolitical implications of the ruling six months after it was issued. In the first article, Clive Schofield provides a concise overview of the award and its legal significance. The following six contributions look at the responses to the award from the Philippines (Lowell Bautista), China (Nong Hong), Taiwan (Anne Hsiu-An Hsiao), Vietnam (Nguyen Thi Lan Anh), Malaysia (Prashanth Parameswaran) and Indonesia (Evan A. Laksmana). Overall, regional responses to the ruling have been relatively lowkey. China and Taiwan have both rejected the award. Beijing has not moved to bring its claims into line with UNCLOS, but, contrary to expectations, neither has it increased its assertive actions in the South China Sea. The Philippines, under President Rodrigo Duterte, has acknowledged but downplayed the ruling as part of a policy to repair strained relations with China. Meanwhile, the other Southeast Asian claimants are watching closely how Sino–Philippine relations develop and the attendant potential ramifications for the long-running and contentious dispute in the South China Sea. [End Page 338]