Wednesday May 27, 2020


July 12, 2016

An international tribunal in The Hague has ruled in favor of the Philippines against China. The Permanent Court of Arbitration concluded that China violated the Philippines’ sovereign rights, and caused serious environmental damage. The ruling came from an arbitration tribunal formed under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)—an international agreement both China and the Philippines have signed. The tribunal ruled on seven of the fifteen points brought forward by the Philippines.


The tribunal “found that China had violated the Philippines’ sovereign rights in its exclusive economic zone by (a) interfering with Philippine fishing and petroleum exploration, (b) constructing artificial islands and (c) failing to prevent Chinese fishermen from fishing in the zone. The tribunal also held that fishermen from the Philippines (like those from China) had traditional fishing rights at Scarborough Shoal and that China had interfered with these rights by restricting access. The tribunal further held that Chinese law enforcement vessels had unlawfully created a serious risk of collision when they physically obstructed Philippine vessels.”


This historical case marks the first time China has been called before the international justice system. This case also marks a substantial blow to China’s legal claims over the South China Sea. China bases its territorial claims in the South China Sea off the “nine-dash line.”  The South China Sea covers several hundred small islands, reefs, and atolls, almost all uninhabited and uninhabitable. The former Kuomintang government of China drew the nine-dash line, which the People’s Republic of China inherited. A publication from Brookings states, “the nine-dash line draws a border around all of these islands, asserts sovereignty over all of them, and makes ambiguous claims about rights to waters within the line.” Under UNCLOS, countries can claim exclusive rights to the fish and mineral resources within Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ). A country’s EEZ can extend 200 nautical miles from a continental shoreline or around islands that can support habitation. There is no provision in UNCLOS granting rights to waters, such as in the South China Sea, without regard to land-based sovereign rights.


The tribunal has ruled that rocky outcrops and small maritime features do not warrant territory. Therefore, China cannot claim territorial rights that would be associated with these maritime features. The ruling does not distribute any of the rocky outcrops or islands to rival countries, but rather identifies which maritime features are capable of having territorial rights over surrounding areas under international law.  This also means that claims to mineral and fish resources in the South China Sea are invalid, unless they are linked to specific inhabitable islands. The disputed maritime landforms fall within the Philippines EEZ. Therefore the Philippines has jurisdictional control over the economic resources in that area, not China. This ruling could lead to other countries like Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Vietnam, who also have claims in the South China Sea, to file complaints against China. It is important to note that this ruling does not directly affect islands and island chains that are in question. Although the ruling is binding, the Permanent Court of Arbitration has no mechanism to be able to enforce the ruling.


Leading up to the ruling, China garnered support from Russia, Saudi Arabia, and some landlocked states in Africa. The Philippines has been backed by the United States, France, the United Kingdom, Japan, and others. The South China Sea is a region of great importance. Approximately, $5 trillion in commerce flows through the region every year. Additionally, its fisheries comprise 12% of the global catch, and it holds significant oil and gas reserves deep underneath the ocean floor.


China’s Foreign Ministry has rejected the ruling, saying, “The unilateral initiation of arbitration by the Philippines is out of bad faith. It aims not to resolve the relevant disputes between China and the Philippines, or to maintain peace and stability in the South China Sea, but to deny China’s territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests in the South China Sea.” However, the ministry also stated that it was committed to freedom of navigation and overflight, and that China was ready to keep working to resolve these disputes peacefully.


The United States supported the ruling as an important step in the peaceful resolution to disputes in the South China Sea. The United States also urged all parties to consider the ruling legally binding. The United States sent an aircraft carrier and fighter jets ahead of the ruling, while the Chinese navy has continued to carry out exercises near the disputed Paracel islands. The United States conducts freedom of navigation exercises consistently in the South China Sea. This has led to previous tensions between the United States and China. Aside for the economic importance of the region, the United States also has a strong presence in maritime activities linking it closely to the South China Sea disputes.


For more information regarding the South China Sea, please visit the following links:

Washington Post- “Beijing’s claims to South China Sea rejected by international tribunal”

Permanent Court of ArbitrationPress Release”

CNN “ South China Sea: Court rules in favor of Philippines over China”

Reuters-“Tribunal overwhelmingly rejects Beijing’s South China Sea claims”

BBCSouth China Sea: Tribunal backs case against China brought by Philippines”

The GuardianBeijing rejects tribunal’s ruling in South China Sea case

New York Times-“Beijing’s South China Sea Claims Rejected by Hague Tribunal”

Brookings-“The U.S. and China’s Nine-Dash Line: Ending Ambiguity”

Compiled and edited by Sarah Eustace