Philippines v. China Won’t End South China Sea Disputes


Observers of Asian geopolitics are by now familiar with the legal challenge brought by the Philippines challenging China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea. Last year, the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled that it had jurisdiction over the main claims brought by the Philippines, rejecting China’s argument that the case presented a territorial dispute beyond the purview of the Court. A ruling on the merits of the case, including a ruling of the legality of China’s “nine-dash line” is expected in May or June of this year.

The case is a landmark for international law as a force in geopolitics. The case is also a landmark for the Court, as it is arguably the highest profile case in its 117 year history. The case also will have a real impact on the region’s geopolitics if the nine-dash line is formally ruled illegal. But no one should be under the impression that this case will end the dispute over control of the South China Sea — far from it. In fact, the Court’s ruling on jurisdiction was written in such a way that protects some of China’s most controversial claims from the scrutiny of legal arbitration and ensures that maritime disputes in the South China Sea will continue. To understand why requires a precise understanding of exactly what the Court said in its ruling on jurisdiction and how China’s arguments in the case effectively narrowed any potential ruling to shield some of China’s most important claims from the Court’s reach.

China did not formally participate in the case, though it did publish a position paper that the Court treated as a brief. In its position paper, China argued that the Court had no jurisdiction over the nine-dash line because it is based on underlying claims to territory (namely, China’s claims to the island chains of the South China Sea) and the Court is expressly prohibited from deciding territorial disputes. Essentially, China argued that the Court could not rule on the legality of the nine-dash line because it did not have the power to decide the underlying dispute over control of the Spratly Islands.

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