How did the court rule in the South China Sea arbitration case and why does it matter?
Beijing refused to participate in the arbitration, and it has shown contempt for the ruling, which favoured the Philippines and dismissed China’s “nine-dash line” claims to sovereignty over much of the South China Sea. According to China Daily’s headline the next day, the court ruling is “null and void, with no binding force”. It further labelled the arbitration as “illegal, illegitimate and invalid”, and claimed that China had the support of 90 countries who also agreed that South China Sea disputes should be resolved through negotiation and not arbitration. The Global Times said America was “taking advantage” of the tensions but ominously warned that China would not back down and the country “should prepare for military action”.
There had been predictions that the Hague court would rule in favour of the Philippines, but some were still taken aback by the language in the verdict. The New York Times reported that “the Hague panel rebuked China for its behaviour and ruled that its expansive claim to sovereignty over the waters had no legal basis”. CNN said the verdict might embolden others with claims in the South China Sea to begin similar proceedings. The Financial Times pointed out what was at stake: a 4 million square kilometre area of sea that’s “crossed by ships carrying $5 trillion worth of cargo per year and has reserves of about 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas”. Any armed conflict in the area would have a devastating impact on global trade.
What was the reaction?
Xinhua claims both the Pakistani and Thai Foreign Ministries urged that differences be resolved through peaceful talks (and without involving a third party). It further references Tom Zwart, a professor of law at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, who said that the award will not resolve any of the issues in the region because the tribunal lacked jurisdiction. Xinhua also points out that President Xi Jinping reiterated China’s territorial sovereignty and maritime interests in the South China Sea will “never be influenced” by the Hague arbitration ruling, while China Daily cited the remark of Foreign Minister Wang Yi that the verdict was “sheer political farce in the disguise of law”.
In the past, Philippines’ President Rodrigo Duterte has been outspoken on the territorial dispute: during his recent campaign, he vowed to ride a jet ski to the disputed islands and plant a Philippines flag. However, according to Philippines’ news website Rappler, it seems that Duterte hopes for a “soft landing” with China, and will not “flaunt” the win. Former President Benigno Aquino II, whose administration started the case, has said that the historic ruling is a “victory for all”. Immediately after the ruling, the Philippines Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay continued to urge for “restraint and sobriety”. Despite this, the Philippines has been in a festive mood since the ruling, with parades filling the streets, as shown by photos carried by the Philippines Inquirer.
What are the next steps?
Xinhua claims China needs to put an end to the “farce”. It welcomes Duterte’s desire to engage in bilateral talks, and says China advocates peace. However, actions may speak louder than words, particularly when it comes to China’s recent military actions. For instance, photographs were posted on an official military website of China’s fourth 054D-type guided-missile destroyer. Beijing-based military expert Li Jie told the Global Times that “more advanced weapons will show up in the South China Sea after the tribunal’s ruling,” and to expect further Chinese land reclamations, construction of artificial islands and naval drills in the disputed waters.
Former president Fidel Ramos says Duterte’s administration should become more economically engaged with China, particularly in its One Belt, One Road Initiative, reports the Telegraph. Local media says Duterte is open to bilateral talks, and may use the situation as a bargaining chip to get greater Chinese investment in the Philippines. News agency GMA reports Yasay stated that the Philippines is willing to share resources in the South China Sea with China. In regards to military defence, Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said he could “not provide an answer as they are still looking into the implications of the ruling”.
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