Maritime disputes in the South China Sea


While China has refused to accept the ruling, it has conducted air patrols over disputed areas, and said that it would hold war games with Russia

No one expected the international arbitration court to be the last word that China had no legal basis to claim longstanding rights over most of the South China Sea, which is rich in resources and carries out $5 trillion in annual trade. The ruling also faulted China for its seemingly aggressive attempts to extend its domain by shipping in tons of dirt to transform small reefs and rocks into artificial islands with airstrips and military structures.

The waterway is too strategically important and the disputes too complex for the competing claim by China and five other countries in the region to be quickly resolved. Yet provocations continue raising questions about China’s commitment to the rule of law and heightening fears of a wider conflict. Xinhua the official Chinese news agency termed the ruling “naturally null and void.” China also issued its own 50-page white book on the South China Sea, reiterating that its claims are based on history and legitimate. It filed a protest with the Japanese Embassy in Beijing over the statement by Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, who stressed the importance of settling the disputes in the South China Sea under the rule of law and through peaceful means.

While China has refused to accept the ruling, it has conducted air patrols over disputed areas, and said that it would hold war games with Russia. China is not alone in engaging in risky maneuvers since Vietnam had also stationed new mobile rocket launchers on five bases in the Spratly Islands. Fortunately, none of the claimants, which also include the Philippines, Indonesia, Brunei and Malaysia, have tried to take the sort of action that could cause a full-blown crisis, such as China’s threat to declare an air defense zone over the sea and to insist that all planes obtain permission before crossing through it.

US administration has responded in defending America’s commitment to freedom of navigation by sending warships into the South China Sea, close to some of the disputed lands. China has a compelling economic interest in a stable region and in 2012, President Xi Jinping called for a new relationship in which China and the United States would seek together to manage conflict. US administration has played an important restraining role in Sea arbitration but it lacks only one important point, while urging all Asian states to respect the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea dispute-resolution institutions, it has itself shamefully failed to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) treaty, something China did 20 years ago.

The Law of the Sea treaty sets rules for establishing zones of control over the oceans based on distances to coastlines. In addition to China and the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei, Indonesia and Taiwan all claim parts of the South China Sea. The unanimous decision by a five-judge tribunal in The Hague was more favorable toward the Philippines and broader in scope than experts had predicted. The court’s judgment is legally binding yet unenforceable except through international pressure or private negotiations, because China has a power of veto over UN resolutions and the tribunal is limited to deal with maritime disputes, not the underlying land claims to the islands, reefs and rocks that are also contested. The Philippines filed the case in 2013 after China took control of a reef known as Scarborough Shoal. The case accused China of interfering with fishing, endangering ships and failing to protect marine life. Philippines also asked the tribunal to reject China’s claims to sovereignty within a so-called nine-dash line that encompasses much of the South China Sea.