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The Hague to China: No Historical Rights to Large Swaths of the South China Sea

Posted By July 12, 2016 No Comments

The Tribunal of the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague ruled today that that the “nine-dash line,” which China claims to be its maritime border in the South China Sea, has “no legal basis.” The “nine-dash line” is:

Beijing’s claim that encircles as much as 90 per cent of the ­contested waters. The line runs as far as 2,000km from the Chinese mainland to within a few hundred kilometres of the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam. Beijing maintains it owns any land or features ­contained within the line, which confers vaguely defined “historical maritime rights”.

The video below from The Seeker Daily, explains the historical and political context behind this issue.

In 2013, the Philippines brought the case to the Tribunal – which Vietnam supported in 2014 – to challenge China’s claims in the region. Since then, the United States, China, and Vietnam have each presented legal opinions regarding the case to the Tribunal. However, China stated that it would not recognize the Tribunal proceedings because it did not recognize the international court’s jurisdiction in this case.

Following the Tribunal’s recent decision nullifying the “nine-dash line,” the Chinese government immediately indicated that it would not adhere to the court’s rulings. The official Chinese news outlet Xinhau stated,  “The award is null and void and has no binding force. China neither accepts nor recognizes it.”

Analysts are now debating whether or not this case signals the strengthening of international maritime law, or the weakening of it. If China does not adhere to the ruling, then there could be more elevated tension in the region and perhaps, political and military action. The Wall Street Journal stated:

“The ruling, based on a United Nations convention on maritime law, comes after several years of escalating tension in the region as China has alarmed the U.S. and its allies by using its rapidly expanding naval and air power to assert territorial claims and challenge U.S. military supremacy in Asia. The Philippines case is seen as a test of China’s commitment to a rules-based international order which the U.S. and its allies say has been undermined by Beijing’s recent military activities, including construction of seven fortified artificial islands in the South China Sea.

U.S. officials have warned that China could respond to the ruling by starting land reclamation at another disputed reef near the Philippines, or declaring an air defense identification zone over the South China Sea. China hasn’t announced any such plans, but says it has the right to do both. The unanimous ruling by the tribunal’s five judges is legally binding for China and the Philippines but can only be enforced through international pressure.”

The Global and Mail reported that China’s Global Times stated just after the ruling:

“What actions China may take on Huangyan and Ren’ai [another island claimed by both Beijing and Manila], and whether China will announce a South China Sea ADIZ depends on the reactions of the Philippines to the arbitration result and the degree of US and Japanese provocations,” read an unsigned editorial published Tuesday.

“So far, none of the concerned parties want military confrontation. But all are ratcheting up military preparations. The South China Sea has been clouded by unprecedented tensions. It’s uncertain where the situation will head to.”

In April of this year, Jerome Cohen wrote for Foreign Policy regarding the impending decision by the Tribunal, and speculated what China’s reaction would be. Cohen reiterated the beliefs of different analysts, speculating that China could protest by A) withdrawing from the UNCLOS system – but they could not do this before it would be required to “oblige” with the Court’s decision – B) embarking on a campaign to “disparage” the decision through statements, the press and it’s own official legal opinions, or C) contesting the decision publicly while utilizing diplomacy to quell any rising tension, and prevent any further legal proceedings brought forward by other countries in the South China Sea. Cohen wrote:

Yet the situation is not hopeless. Experience has shown that China’s foreign policies and legal positions are not written in stone. An increasingly vigorous effort by those nations that have their own maritime disputes with China to promote their settlement through diplomacy that includes resort to international legal institutions may ultimately prove effective. If all affected nations in the East China Sea and the South China Sea “bombard the headquarters” in Beijing by taking their international law disputes with China to international legal institutions — rather than relying exclusively on endless, fruitless, and unequal bilateral negotiations or American military gestures — there is hope for a turnabout.