On October 29th, in a unanimous decision, the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague issued its first, preliminary ruling concerning whether the Tribunal has ‘jurisdiction’ over the issues raised by the Philippines against China’s so called ‘nine-dash line’ in the South China Sea. The Tribunal held that in about half of the Philippines’ fifteen claims, it did have jurisdiction. The other claims will be treated as jurisdictional questions fused with the merits of the case, and the Tribunal will be rendering a final award in 2016. The Tribunal’s preliminary award on jurisdiction and admissibility should prove to be a clear victory for international law, as well as a clear defeat for Chinese unilateralism.
Given that the award was designed to address threshold issues about jurisdiction, it quickly led to a belief among those in Beijing that The Hague court will eventually be deciding against Chinese interests. Last week, Beijing’s vice foreign minister aired similar concerns. Many observers see this as a perfect test case for a rules-based approach to managing future regional conflict. It may well also set the stage for reigning in China’s ‘unique’ interpretation of international maritime law, which ignores nearly universally held concepts of territorial boundaries, Exclusive Economic Zones, and freely navigable international waters.
Had the Hague Tribunal denied itself jurisdiction, it would have legitimized China’s effective occupation of the South China Sea under a claim of ‘historical rights,’ based on old historical maps that did not encompass modern maritime law. An adverse ruling would likely have emboldened China to go even further than it already has in the South China Sea and claim rights to other bodies of water, as if they were a natural extension of China’s land mass.