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International Court Ruling on China, Philippines Dispute Could Be Vital


Satellite imagery analysis by geopolitical intelligence firm Stratfor shows overall land, building and military expansion by China on Woody Island in the South China Sea. (Courtesy of Stratfor)
Satellite imagery analysis by geopolitical intelligence firm Stratfor shows overall land, building and military expansion by China on Woody Island in the South China Sea. (Courtesy of Stratfor)

An international tribunal will issue a ruling on July 12 on a territorial dispute between China and the Philippines in the South China Sea. Though the decision will not determine sovereignty of the territory in question, it could have wide-ranging implications for China's sweeping claims in one of the world's most important and bitterly contested waterways.

  • What's behind the dispute?

China claims nearly the entire 3.5 million square-kilometer South China Sea, based on its so-called "nine-dashed line," which it says is based on ancient maps. China's claims overlap with not only the Philippines, but also Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan. Some of the disputes stretch back decades or even centuries. But tensions have worsened in recent years, as Beijing has moved to assert its control over the territory.

  • Who brought the case against China?

The Philippines filed the case against China at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague in January 2013. Manila argues Beijing's territorial claims and recent aggressive activities in the South China Sea violate the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), an international treaty both nations have ratified.

  • How has China responded?

China refuses to participate in the tribunal, arguing it has no obligation to do so under UNCLOS. Beijing has also repeatedly insisted it will not recognize what it predicts will be a biased ruling. In the meantime, China has continued to build artificial islands and military outposts in the contested waters, in an attempt to create "facts on the ground."

  • What exactly is the court considering?

The Philippines brought a total of 15 complaints against China. The most significant is complaint number two, which claims China's "nine-dash line" is contrary to UNCLOS. So far, the court has not determined it has jurisdiction to rule on that complaint.

Instead, the tribunal announced late last year it will tackle seven other critical issues. These include complaints challenging specific Chinese activities around particular locations. It is also expected to officially categorize various land features as either rocks, islands, or low tide elevations - labels that would affect the rights of whoever owns the territory.

  • Is the ruling binding?

Technically, yes. But in reality, UNCLOS has no way to enforce its rulings, since it does not have a police force, an army or a way to impose sanctions on those who ignore its decisions. Some analysts have speculated that the matter could be taken to the U.N. Security Council, but China and Russia, which are permanent members, would inevitably veto any action there.

  • If the ruling is not enforceable, why does it matter?

If, as expected, the court rules at least partially in the Philippines' favor, it could put important diplomatic pressure on China. It could also provide an important symbolic victory for Asian leaders who say Beijing is ignoring international law as it seeks to assert its power in the region.

A ruling against China would also set an important legal precedent and become part of international law. It could also encourage other countries who have territorial disputes with China to take similar legal action.

  • What is the U.S. stance on the dispute?

The U.S. says it takes no official position on China's various territorial disputes. But top officials have repeatedly criticized China's actions in the South China Sea and have urged China to accept the court's eventual ruling. However, any U.S. efforts to publicly shame Beijing may be limited by the fact that Washington itself has refused to ratify UNCLOS.

  • So what's next?

China's next move is uncertain. Some have said it may withdraw in protest from the UNCLOS treaty system. But that can only be done with a year's notice, allowing other nations plenty of time to file last-minute cases. The move also may reinforce a perception that Beijing does not want to play by the established rules of international order.

China says it prefers to solve territorial disputes through direct negotiations, but has taken no meaningful steps toward holding talks. Instead, Beijing is seemingly content to let the disputes play out as it continues building in the disputed areas.

  • Will anything change under the Philippines new president?

The Philippines' incoming president, Rodrigo Duterte, says he is open to bilateral talks with China if the standoff is not resolved in two years. That represents a policy difference from his predecessor, Benigno Aquino, who took a hardline stance on the territorial dispute.

But Duterte also made it clear this week he does not intend to give up much ground, saying the disputed territory "is ours," and telling China: "You have no right to be there." The tough-talking politician has also threatened to personally ride a jet ski to one of the disputed islands to stake his country's claim.

  • What's at stake?

A lot of money, and a lot of national pride. More than $5 trillion in trade passes through the South China Sea every year. The area is also home to vital fishing grounds and is thought to contain vast natural gas and oil deposits. Political leaders in many claimant countries have also exploited the issue to rouse nationalistic sentiment.