Narrow Court Ruling May Offer Room for Diplomacy on South China Sea Claims


SYDNEY: While tensions continue to rise in the South China Sea with steady military build-up by all sides, especially by China, a new pathway may be opening for peaceful resolution of the territorial disputes. The Arbitral Tribunal at the Permanent Court of Arbitration will soon announce whether it has jurisdiction to rule on the Philippines’ case against China’s expansive maritime claims in the South China Sea. China is expected to reject the court’s ruling, though it might eventually be compelled to soften its stance.

The decision, expected this month, marks the next stage in a bitter legal process that began in January 2013 when Manila resorted to international law to settle its maritime disputes with Beijing under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, or UNCLOS. Beijing immediately boycotted the proceedings, invoking its exemption to arbitration and refusing to submit formal documentation in defense of its claims. As positions hardened, China released a position paper on its objections while the United States, Japan, and Vietnam lent diplomatic support to the Philippines’ position.    

The crux of the Philippines’ case against China is a contention that Beijing’s “nine-dashed line” is not a legitimate basis for a maritime claim. In this way, the case has the potential to set a legal precedent for the entire region. Engulfing almost all of the South China Sea, the nine-dashed line has come to signify China’s maximalist claim to “indisputable sovereignty” – a major cause of regional maritime tensions. The broad claim tramples over the Exclusive Economic Zones, or EEZs, of Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines. All have repeatedly asked China to clarify its nature. While Beijing argues its sovereignty is premised on “historical rights,” there is no legal precedent for this in international maritime law—which Manila hopes the tribunal will confirm.

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