China’s claims to South China Sea rejected by international tribunal

In a major blow to China an international tribunal ruled Tuesday that there was no evidence that China had historically exercised exclusive control over the waters or resources. The Permanent Court of Arbitration said  that China has no legal basis to claim historic rights to the South China Sea that could trigger tensions internationally.

The tribunal in The Hague said China had violated the Philippines’ sovereign rights. It also said China had caused “severe harm to the coral reef environment” by building artificial islands. But China immediately rejected the decision by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, but it was hailed as a landmark victory for those challenging Beijing’s reach into waters with key strategic and commercial significance. China called the ruling “ill-founded” and says it will not be bound by it. China claims almost all of the South China Sea, including reefs and islands also claimed by others.

The State Department called on China to abide by the ruling and urged nations bordering the South China Sea to avoid “provocative statements or actions.” China insists it has full rights over the sea and has moved ahead with construction of island sites that the West and others worry could have military dimensions and disrupt important shipping routes. The tribunal also ruled that China had violated the Philippines’ sovereign rights by constructing artificial islands there and had caused “permanent irreparable harm to the coral reef ecosystem.”

The ruling came from an arbitration tribunal under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which both countries have signed. It ruled on seven of 15 points brought by the Philippines. Among the key findings were:

  1. Fishermen from the Philippines and China both had fishing rights around the disputed Scarborough Shoal area, and China had interfered by restricting access
  2. China had “destroyed evidence of the natural condition of features in the South China Sea” that formed part of the dispute
  3. Transient use of features above water did not constitute in-habitation – one of the key conditions for claiming land rights of 200 nautical miles, rather than the 12 miles granted for rocks visible at high tide.

The ruling is binding but the Permanent Court of Arbitration has no powers of enforcement.

What is the issue

China sea is a major shipping route and home to fishing grounds that supply the livelihoods of people across the region.

Philippines says China’s “nine-dash line”, which China uses to demarcate its territorial claims, is unlawful under the UNCLOS convention. Also Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei also have competing claims in the region. Although these islands are largely uninhabited, they may have reserves of natural resources around them. There has been little detailed exploration of the area, so estimates are largely extrapolated from the mineral wealth of neighbouring areas.


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