Whether the South China Sea Arbitral Award Matters Will Depend Almost Entirely On the U.S.


It has been two months since the UN Convention for the Law of the Sea arbitral tribunal issued its blockbuster award ruling against China’s maritime claims and activities in the South China Sea. Given all the buildup, it is remarkable how little has changed since the award was released. Was the award much ado about nothing? Not quite, or at least not yet. The award still matters, although the award’s continued significance depends almost entirely on the U.S. government’s reaction. With the exception of Japan, no other nation in the region besides the U.S. has made the enforcement of the arbitral award a meaningful priority.

During the recent round of summitry in Asia, it is striking how the U.S. and Japanese governments seemed to be the only countries publicly pressing China to abide by the award. Not only did the meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) result in an equivocal statement that did not mention the arbitral award, but Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte cast aside a prepared speech that would have called for China to abide by the award. Instead, Duterte defended the Philippines’ human rights record from international criticism while also reminding his audience of world leaders of the U.S. human rights abuses in his country during the early 20th century.

This leaves the U.S. and Japan in the odd position of being more publicly supportive of the arbitral award than the country that brought the arbitration in the first place. Indeed, President Obama has made this arbitral award a personal priority. Just before he visited China for the G-20 last week, President Obama gave an interview on CNN that criticized China for failing to abide by the arbitral award ruling.