Two Years On, South China Sea Ruling Remains a Battleground for the Rules-Based Order


On 12 July 2016, an independent arbitral tribunal established under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) published a clear and binding ruling on China’s claims vis-à-vis the Philippines in the South China Sea. China’s response at the time was to dismiss the ruling as ‘nothing more than a piece of waste paper’.

Interestingly, in the two years since then it has, in some small ways, complied with it. However, it is also clear that China’s behaviour in the South China Sea has not fundamentally changed. It is, in effect, using military force to try to extort concessions from its neighbours. That poses a threat to international peace and security.

The arbitral tribunal was asked by the Philippines to rule on 15 points, of which two were particularly significant. The first was that China’s claims to ‘historic rights’ within the entirety of the U-shaped, ‘9-dash line’ that it draws on maps of the South China Sea are mostly incompatible with the internationally-agreed UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). UNCLOS is clear: entitlements in the sea have to be within areas measured from land.

Secondly, the tribunal ruled that none of the Spratly Islands, nor an isolated reef known as Scarborough Shoal, are capable of supporting human habitation in their natural state. This means that none are entitled to an exclusive economic zone around them. The implication of these two rulings is that the vast majority of the resources in the southern part of the South China Sea belong to the coastal states: the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia and Vietnam.

Nonetheless China is continuing to pressure those countries to give away their rights to the oil, gas and fish. Under the name of ‘joint development’ China is continuing to demand a share of those countries’ resources even though the tribunal clearly ruled those demands illegitimate. In May 2017, President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines said publicly that his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, had personally threatened him with war if the Philippines attempted to tap the large gas reserves in an area of the sea known as the Reed Bank.

The Philippines’ existing gas fields are expected to begin running out within five years, whereupon the country will face an electricity shortage. China’s military threats will have major consequences for the government in Manila. The most likely result is that the Philippines will have to build more coal-fired power stations to fill the gap.