BREAKING: Philippines Win Landmark South China Sea Ruling

BREAKING: Philippines Win Landmark South China Sea Ruling
Photo Credit: AP/達志影像
What you need to know

The Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague has handed down its highly anticipated decision in the South China Sea dispute. Both Beijing and Taipei say they do not recognize the validity of the ruling.

The Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) on July 12 unanimously ruled in favor of the Philippines in the South China Sea territorial dispute, saying that China has no "historical title" over waters or resources in the South China Sea. The ruling sparked anger in Beijing and calls by the international community for China to recognize the legality of the ruling.

In its long-expected ruling, the Court said there was "no legal basis for China to claim historic rights to resources within the sea areas falling within the 'nine-dash line.'"

"[T]o the extent China had historic rights to resources in the waters of the South China Sea, such rights were extinguished to the extent they were incompatible with the exclusive economic zones provided for in the Convention," it wrote, referring to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

"[A]lthough Chinese navigators and fishermen, as well as those of other States, had historically made use of the islands in the South China Sea, there was no evidence that China had historically exercised exclusive control over the waters or their resources," it said.

The tribunal said that as it had found that none of the features of the Spratly Islands claimed by China was capable of generating an exclusive economic zone, it could “declare that certain sea areas are within the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines, because those areas are not overlapped by any possible entitlement of China.”

The tribunal also 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."

It added that "fishermen from the Philippines (like those from China) had traditional fishing rights at Scarborough Shoal and that China had interfered with these rights in restricting access," and that "Chinese law enforcement vessels had unlawfully created a serious risk of collision when they physically obstructed Philippine vessels."

The ruling also found that "China’s recent large-scale land reclamation and construction of artificial islands at seven features in the Spratly Islands ... caused severe harm to the coral reef environment and violated its obligation to preserve and protect fragile ecosystems and the habitat of depleted, threatened, or endangered species."

On the harm to marine environment, the tribunal also “found that Chinese authorities were aware that Chinese fishermen have harvested endangered sea turtles, coral, and giant clams on a substantial scale in the South China Sea."

While the tribunal said it lacked jurisdiction to consider the implications of a stand-off between Philippine marines and Chinese naval vessels, it noted that China’s large-scale land reclamation and construction of artificial islands was incompatible with the obligations on a State during dispute resolution proceedings.

The ruling is also of significance to Taiwan, as it does not recognize Taiwan-controlled Taiping Island (Itu Aba) as an island. Due to its international isolation on pressure from China, Taiwan was not consulted by the Court.

Reactions, mounting tensions

As expected, the reaction in China was one of dismay.

In a statement after the ruling, the Chinese foreign ministry “solemnly declared” that the ruling was invalid and non-binding, and that China does not accept or recognize it.

Throughout the day state-run Xinhua news agency described the Court as a "law-abusing tribunal." State-run CCTV news stated that the People's Liberation Army would "unswervingly safeguard state sovereignty, security, maritime rights and interests."

Foreign coverage of the results, including the BBC, were immediately censored in China.

The cases database on the PCA website was down on Tuesday.

In an official statement, the Presidential Office in Taipei said the Republic of China (ROC) was never formally invited to participate in the proceedings of the PCA and never sought its advice. With regards to Taiping Island, whose recognition as a reef by the PCA is seen as undermining Taiwan's claims, Taipei said the ruling "seriously damaged" the ROC's territorial interests in the region and that it would never accept it. It added that the ruling was not legally binding. The Presidential Office called for multilateral efforts to resolve the dispute.

Meanwhile in Manila, Philippines Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasa said in a statement that officials were analyzing the decision and he called on all those concerned to exercise restraint and sobriety.

“The Philippines strongly affirms its respect for this milestone decision as an important contribution to ongoing efforts in addressing disputes in the South China Sea (West Philippine Sea),” Yasa said. “The decision upholds international law, particularly the 1982 UNCLOS.”

He added that the Philippines reiterates its “abiding commitment to efforts to pursue the peaceful resolution and management of disputes with a view to promoting and enhancing peace and stability in the region.”

The Philippines took the case to the Court in January 2013 but a hearing was not held until November 2015. The case tested the role of historical rights and the source of maritime entitlements in the area.

The Court has considered the status of what it describes as “certain maritime features” – tiny islands, atolls and reefs – in the South China Sea and the maritime entitlements they are capable of generating.

It has also looked at the lawfulness of actions by China in the South China Sea that are alleged by the Philippines to have violated UNCLOS.

China has not participated in the proceedings and has consistently said it does not accept the Court’s jurisdiction in the matter.

In the months leading up to the release of the decision, Beijing ramped-up its propaganda offensive, using its state-run media and the opinion pages of newspapers worldwide to reiterate its claims. Among other things, Beijing said the Philippines had "unilaterally" initiated the case and that the results would "naturally" be "null and void."

On June 27, the state-run People’s Daily said China is fully capable of removing a Philippines military base on a disputed atoll in the South China Sea, but is exercising “high restraint."

Just hours before the ruling, authorities in Beijing issued instructions to law enforcement to increase security around the city. The decree comes in a tense atmosphere and amid rumors of possible large protests outside the Philippines Embassy, as well as the Embassy of the United States – the country that Chinese nationalists blame for the dispute.

J. Michael Cole contributed to this story.