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China, Philippines Await Potential Landmark Maritime Ruling

Demonstrators display a part of a fishing boat with anti-China protest signs during a rally by different activist groups over the South China Sea disputes, outside the Chinese Consulate in Makati City, Metro Manila, Philippines, July 12, 2016.

The U.N.’s arbitration court will announce its decision Tuesday on a maritime dispute between China and the Philippines that could challenge Beijing's claims of sovereignty over the strategic South China Sea.

The Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration is ruling on a case brought by Manila in 2013 over China's aggressive actions off the Scarborough Shoal, a reef located about 225 kilometers off the Philippine coast. The Philippines is accusing China of violating the U.N.'s Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), an international treaty that sets a country's maritime boundaries 12 nautical miles from its coast, and control over economic activities up to 200 nautical miles from its coast.

An estimated $5 trillion in global trade passes each year through the South China Sea, which is home to rich fishing ground and a potentially vast wealth of oil, gas and other natural resources.

The Court of Arbitration will not decide directly on matters of sovereignty over the Scarborough Shoal, but will determine whether land masses in the area are either islands, rocks or low tide elevations, which could affect the rights of whoever owns the territory.

China has boycotted the proceedings at the court, saying the body has no jurisdiction over the dispute. China says the issues must be resolved through bilateral negotiations.

South China Sea territorial claims map
South China Sea territorial claims map

And despite being a signatory to UNCLOS along with the Philippines, China says it will not accept, recognize or implement any ruling on the South China Sea by the Court of Arbitration.

Beijing has claimed sovereignty over nearly all of the 3.5 million square kilometer South China Sea, basing its claim on a so-called "nine-dash line" that stretches from the southern China coast, ignoring competing claims by Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan, as well as the Philippines. It has begun a massive construction effort throughout the region, rebuilding numerous reefs into artificial islands that can support military installations.

South China Sea - Summary of Philippines Territorial Claims graphic
South China Sea - Summary of Philippines Territorial Claims graphic

Even if the ruling is in the Philippine's favor, the U.N. has no mechanism to enforce the decision, either through military action or economic sanctions. But such a ruling could prompt China's other Asia-Pacific rivals to also file suit, putting increased diplomatic pressure on Beijing to reduce its presence in the South China Sea. The United States has also launched a challenge against Beijing's increasing aggressiveness in the region, holding a number of naval exercises and deploying warships near the rebuilt reefs to assert the international freedom of navigation rules.

China's response could also depend on actions by new Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who has called for bilateral negotiations to resolve the controversy.

Harry Kazianis, a Senior Fellow for Defense Policy at the Center for the National Interest, recently told VOA that China could take three options in response to the ruling: it could simply continue with its present course of action, declare an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) over the South China Sea, or "go rogue," meaning that Chinese President Xi Jinping could exert additional pressure in the region.

China has been conducting a series of military exercises around the Paracel Islands in anticipation of Tuesday's ruling.

Richard Green contributed to this report.

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