Bill Hayton: Beijing takes South China Sea ruling seriously


Legal stance modified after last year’s tribunal defeat

One year ago, China suffered a massive legal defeat when an international tribunal based in The Hague ruled that the vast majority of Beijing’s extensive claims to maritime rights and resources in the South China Sea were not compatible with international law. Beijing was furious.

At an official briefing immediately after the ruling, Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin twice called it “nothing more than a piece of waste paper,” and one that “will not be enforced by anyone.” And yet, one year on, China is, in many ways, abiding by it.

The South China Sea covers about 3.5 million sq. km from Singapore to Taiwan, and is home to the region’s most intractable disputes, involving competing claims from China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam and others. The Hague tribunal last year backed Manila’s claim that there was no evidence that China had historically exercised exclusive control over the contested waters. There was therefore no legal basis for its claim to all the marine resources within the “U-shaped line” encompassing the Paracel and Spratly archipelagoes, which has been printed on Chinese maps since 1948.

China is not fully complying with the ruling — far from it. On May 1, China imposed a three-and-a-half-month ban on fishing across the northern part of the South China Sea, as it has done each year since 1995. While the ban may help conserve fish stocks, its unilateral imposition in wide areas of the sea violates the ruling. Further south, China’s occupation of Mischief Reef, a feature that is submerged at high tide and the tribunal ruled was part of the Philippines’ continental shelf, endures. Having built a vast naval base and runway here, China looks like it will remain in violation of that part of the ruling for the foreseeable future.

But there is evidence that the Chinese authorities, despite their rhetoric, have already changed their behavior. In October 2016, three months after the ruling, Beijing allowed Philippine and Vietnamese boats to resume fishing at Scarborough Shoal, west of the Philippines. A China Coast Guard ship still blocks the entrance to the lagoon, but boats can still fish the rich waters around it. The situation is not perfect but neither is China flaunting its defiance.