The Buzz

South China Sea After the Tribunal Ruling: Where Do We Go From Here?

On July 12, the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) 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 (PRC). 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.

Beijing’s Immediate Reaction:

Even before the announcement, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang had made clear that the PRC would not accept the findings. He described the court as a “law-abusing tribunal” engaging in a “farce.” Consequently, he said, China would not recognize its ruling. A week before the ruling was issued, former State Councilor for Foreign Affairs Dai Bingguo described it as “merely a piece of paper.”

Since the ruling was issued, Chinese comments and reactions have been even less tempered. In a meeting with EU officials, Chinese leader Xi Jinping reportedly emphasized that the islands in the South China Sea have been Chinese territory since ancient times, that Beijing rejects any PCA conclusion that affects Chinese territorial sovereignty and maritime rights, and that the PRC would continue to rely on bilateral negotiation.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang, rebutting the American endorsement of the findings, declared the ruling “illegal and invalid.” He went on to denounce the American response as “against the spirit of the rule of law, international law, basic norms governing international relations, and its declaration of not taking sides on issues concerning territorial disputes, obstructing efforts by relevant parties to properly manage and control maritime situation and peacefully resolve the disputes.”

Last Tuesday, immediately after the PCA’s findings were announced, Cui Tiankai, China’s ambassador to the U.S., went so far as to accuse the tribunal of “professional incompetence” and “questionable integrity.” Cui also warned that the ruling “will certainly intensify conflict and even confrontation.”

Indeed, the overall Chinese response has made clear that not only does Beijing reject the findings, but that it considers the very lopsided nature of the conclusions to be evidence that the Court is biased. Certainly, Beijing does not consider the issue over and has little intention of compromising its stance that the territory encompassed within the “9-dash line” are Chinese. Indeed, Philippine fishing boats that tried to operate near Scarborough Shoal in the wake of the hearing were driven off by Chinese coast guard vessels.

In the short-run, however, it is unlikely that Beijing will engage in the outright use of force to uphold its claims in defiance of the PCA. The Chinese are currently participating in the RIMPAC exercises, which will last through August 4, and while Beijing will likely continue to harass foreign aircraft and ships in the South China Sea, a more aggressive response while it is exercising with a host of foreign navies is unlikely.

Similarly, Beijing may well choose to defer any major activity until after the G20 summit scheduled for September 4-5 in Hangzhou. On the other hand, given the sweeping nature of the Court’s findings, Beijing may feel it necessary to act precisely in order to make clear that it will not submit to the PCA. Beijing may feel that casting a shadow over the G20 summit is the best means of defying the tribunal’s rulings.

Chinese Options: