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Int’l tribunal invalidates China’s nine-dash line, massive claims

The Philippines on Tuesday scored a victory against China in a landmark ruling by an international tribunal that invalidated Beijing’s massive claims in South China Sea.

"The  Tribunal  concluded that  there  was  no  legal  basis  for  China  to claim  historic rights to resources within the sea areas falling within the ‘nine-dash line’," the Permanent Court of Arbitration said in a news release.

"[Although] two 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 added.

The 501-page ruling was handed down in The Hague, Netherlands, more than three years after the case was filed by the Philippines in January 2013.

The case hinges on the legal status of reefs, rocks and artificial islands in the Scarborough Shoal and Spratly Island group.

Manila's 15-point case critically asks the tribunal to rule on the status of China's so-called "nine-dash line", a boundary that is the basis for its 69-year-old claim to roughly 85 percent of the South China Sea.

The tribunal will not decide on matters of territorial sovereignty, but will apply the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in determining which countries can claim economic exploitation rights, based on geographic features.

UNCLOS clarified

In a media briefing after the announcement of the award, Supreme Court Associate Justice Francis Jardeleza, who as then solicitor general initiated in 2013 the Philippines' complaint against China before the international tribunal, said the PCA found, among others, that:

  • China's nine-dash line is contrary to UNCLOS and has no basis in law;
  • Scarborough Shoal and five (5) other reefs named in our submission are rocks that generate no entitlements to an exclusive economic zone or continental shelf;
  • Scarborough Shoal has been a traditional fishing ground for fishermen of many nationalities and that China has unlawfully prevented Filipino fishermen from engaging in traditional fishing thereat;
  • Mischief Reef, Second Thomas Shoal and Reed Bank are submerged at high tide, form part of the exclusive economic zone and continental shelf of the Philippines, are not overlapped by any possible entitlement of China;
  • Reed Bank is an entirely submerged reef formation that cannot give rise to maritime entitlements;
  • China violated its obligations under UNCLOS to protect and preserve the marine environment; and
  • China has engaged in the construction of artificial islands, installations and structures at Mischief Reef without the authorization of the Philippines."

"With this Award, issued by a distinguished panel of impartial legal experts, the rights and obligations of the parties under the UNCLOS are now clarified," said Jardeleza.

‘PHL can seek assistance’

South China Sea expert Carl Thayer of the University of New South Wales, Australian Defense Force Academy said the decision "would give the Philippines, other claimants, Association of South East Asian Nations and ASEAN dialogue partners a strong legal and moral case to apply diplomatic and political pressures on China to comply."

"[The Philippines] could legitimately seek outside assistance to protect its rights under international law," Thayer told GMA News Online.

Despite the ruling, Thayer believes China will retain de facto control over these features “because it is the stronger power.”

“Might makes ‘right’ and the Chinese apparently will continue to use coercion and force against the Philippines and other claimants,” Thayer said.

Thayer warned that China “is likely to be isolated by the international community, including the major maritime powers” if it will continue to defy the tribunal’s ruling.

Going big

Under the 1982 UNCLOS, islands grant their owners a 12 nautical mile radius of sovereign territorial waters.

Manila argued in closed court hearings that none of the islands, shoals and reefs in the Spratlys are large enough to grant an additional 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) for fishing and extracting seabed resources.

Prior to the decision, Hofstra University law professor Julian Ku said a decision on the nine-dash-line's legality would signal that the court's judges had "decided to go big."

"If the nine-dash line were declared invalid, then in theory all the other countries would be emboldened," he said.

The court has no power of enforcement, but the victory could spur Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei to file similar cases.

Japan, which is involved in a separate territorial dispute with China in the East China Sea, said its military would closely monitor Chinese activity after the ruling.

Ignoring the ruling

China had already said it will ignore the ruling.

China has boycotted the hearings, saying it does not have jurisdiction over the dispute.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang, asked how China would be getting the ruling, said it would have nothing to do with the court.

"We won't accept any of their so-called materials, no matter what they are," Lu told reporters.

China's state-run Xinhua news agency said the "law-abusing tribunal" had issued an "ill-founded award". In a dispatch from Manila, it said the award was made "amid a global chorus that as the panel has no jurisdiction, its decision is naturally null and void".

The ruling stands to ramp up tensions in the region, where China's increased military assertiveness has worried its smaller neighbors and is a point of confrontation with the United States.

Call for sobriety

Meanwhile, Foreign Affairs Secretary Pefecto Yasay called for sobriety from all parties involved.

Yasay made the plea after welcoming the PCAs unanimous decision in favor of the Philippines for the historic rights and maritime entitlements in the arbitration case against the People's Republic of China.

"Our experts our studying the award with the fairness that this significant arbitral outcome deserves," he said.

"In the meantime we call all concern to exercise restraint and sobriety. The Philippines strongly affirms its respect for this maritime decision as an important contribution to ongoing efforts in addressing disputes to the South China Sea," Yasay added.

Responsible member

The United States and other Philippine allies have called on China to comply with the ruling to show that, as an emerging global power and as a responsible member of the international community, it adheres to the rule of law.

How the Philippine government under newly-installed Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte would act on the verdict remains to be seen.

While Duterte said that he would not compromise the country’s sovereignty in its claimed features in the South China Sea, he has adopted a conciliatory tone towards China, saying he wants to improve strained ties with Beijing and is ready to negotiate bilaterally after the ruling.

Such move is a departure from the position of his predecessor, Benigno Aquino III, which initiated the arbitration case, when China took control of Philippine-claimed Scarborough Shoal in 2012 after a tense standoff. —NB/JST with Reuters, GMA News