Judges at an arbitration court in The Hague ruled on Tuesday that China has no historical or economic rights over the South China Sea. They also rebuked China’s construction of artificial islands and ruled that its military expansion over the area has violated the sovereign rights of the Philippines.
“There was no legal basis for China to claim historic rights to resources within the sea areas falling within the ‘nine-dash line’,” stated the court, referring to a demarcation line on a 1947 map of the sea, which is rich in mineral, fishing resources and energy. It is the basis of China’s claim over approximately 85 percent of the South China Sea.
Although the ruling is legally binding, there is no mechanism in place to enforce it. China, which has boycotted the case brought by the Philippines, refused to adhere to it. “The award is invalid and has no binding force,” the Chinese Foreign Ministry said in a statement. “China does not accept or recognize it.”
“China’s territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests in the South China Sea shall under no circumstances be affected by those awards. China opposes and will never accept any claim or action based on those awards,” it added.
However, the foreign ministry also asserted China’s respect for freedom of navigation and overflight. They said that China would continue to engage in peaceful talks with countries directly concerned to resolve any disputes.
Xinhua, China’s official news agency, said shortly before the ruling was announced that calibration tests on two new airports in the disputed Spratly Islands were successfully conducted by a Chinese civilian aircraft.
China’s Defence Ministry also announced that a new guided missile destroyer was formally commissioned at a naval base on the southern island province of Hainan, which has responsibility for the South China Sea.
China claims most of the energy-rich waters through which about $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes every year. Neighbors Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have claims.
The tribunal overwhelmingly backed the Philippines, stating that the nine-dash line, strategic reefs, and rocky outcrops claimed by China do not support its territorial claims over a 200-mile zone. Judges said that some of the waters were “within the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines, because those areas are not overlapped by any possible entitlement to China.”
The 497-page ruling found that China had violated the Philippines’ sovereign rights by interfering with its fishing and exploring for oil and gas near the Reed Bank.
It also said China had caused “severe harm to the coral reef environment” from construction work and that the country had failed to stop Chinese fisherman from harvesting endangered sea turtles and other species.
The judges acknowledged China’s refusal to participate. However, they said that they tried to take China’s position into account on the basis of its diplomatic correspondence and its statements.
The landmark case brought by the Philippines in 2013 reflects a barrier in China’s rise as a global power. It is the first time that the Chinese government has been tried before the international court of justice.
The victory could encourage Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei to file similar cases.
The Philippines has been supported by the USA, France, UK and Japan while China has been backed by Russia and Saudi Arabia.
China and the USA often conduct military exercises in the area and regularly accuse each other of militarizing the region.
“Our experts are studying the award with the care and thoroughness that this significant arbitral outcome deserves,” Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay said in a statement at a news conference.
“We call on all those concerned to exercise restraint and sobriety. The Philippines strongly affirms its respect for this milestone decision as an important contribution to the ongoing efforts in addressing disputes in the South China Sea.”
Japan said the ruling was legally binding and final.
U.S. diplomatic, military and intelligence officers said China’s reaction to the verdict would determine the response from other claimants (including the USA).
U.S. officials said that if China expands its military activities in the South Asia Sea, the U.S. and other nations would be forced to respond with new and possibly enlarged and multinational maritime freedom of navigation and aerial missions.
Contingency planning for such actions has already been completed or is in its final stages, said one of the officials, who quickly added: “We hope it doesn’t come to that.”
Following the verdict from The Hague, Oil prices increased. International Brent crude futures are up over a dollar (or more than 2 percent) to $47.29 per barrel at 09:32 GMT.
The most direct shipping lane between northeast Asia’s industrial hubs of China, South Korea, Japan, the Middle East and Europe is the South China Basin between the Spratly Islands and the Paracel Islands.
The 15-point case filed by the Philippines concerned the legal status of reefs, rocks and artificial islands in the Scarborough Shoal and Spratly Island group.
Responding to the ruling, social media users in the Philippines have made the term “Chexit” go viral, referring to the people’s assertion that China leaves the territorial waters.