The South China Sea arbitration: Why does it matter?


On Nov. 24-30 2015, the Arbitral Tribunal in The Hague conducted its second hearing on the South China Sea dispute between the Philippines and the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The tribunal was established pursuant to Annex VII of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea 1982 (UNCLOS), to which the Philippines and China are parties.

Contrary to public expectations, the tribunal was not intended to solve the core dispute, namely overlapping claims of sovereignty over maritime features in the South China Sea (SCS). Furthermore, as any other international judicial proceeding, the award of the tribunal will only bind the parties in dispute, in this case the Philippines and China. Worse, China has refused to participate in the proceeding or comply with its decision. But why does the case matter for the international community? Why are so many states closely watching the case, including Malaysia and Vietnam, which both claim parts of the SCS, as well as other countries in the region, such as Indonesia, Japan, Singapore and Thailand? Even Australia and the UK, which are geographically far from the SCS, are paying attention to the outcome of the hearing.

The matter submitted to the arbitration itself, which was filed by the Philippines, was carefully drafted in the expectation that it would fall under the jurisdiction of the tribunal.

It was not concerned with sovereignty, which is outside the scope of UNCLOS dispute settlement mechanism, delimitation problems or military activities, which are excluded by China’s refusal to participate or abide by any decisions reached.

However, the tribunal’s decision on the three main issues in the case will have a significant impact on countries in the region, including Indonesia. The first concerns the validity of China’s nine-dash lines claim.

The second issue concerns the maritime status of the claimed areas, namely whether or not they are entitled to Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ)/Continental Shelf status, territorial waters status or no entitlement at all. The third is the construction activities of China, which are claimed to be damaging the environment.

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