China’s maritime claims, its reclamation projects and its attempts to control South China Sea were rendered illegal on Tuesday by the UN International Court of Arbitration. In a historic ruling, the Tribunal said that China had no legal basis for its famed ‘Nine-Dash Line’, which it had interfered with the Philippines’ fishing rights, and also Beijing had no right to claim a 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone.
The judges at the UN-appointed Arbitration Court further ruled that China breached the Philippines’ sovereign rights by exploring oil and gas and building artificial islands in South China Sea. By delivering the judgement, the Arbitration Court handed a victory to the Philippines, which had filed a case in 2013, challenging Beijing’s claim to 80% of South China Sea through which USD 5 trillion trade passes in a year.
While drawing the ‘Nine-Dash Line’, China said that it demarcated its maritime border. By doing so, Beijing made clear that virtually the entire South China Sea belonged to the Asian giant. China also tried to establish its sovereignty over the islands within the line and surrounding waters within 12 nautical miles.
Appeared on Chinese maps as ‘11-Dash Line’ in 1947, the Chinese Navy took controls of the islands occupied by Japan during WWII. After communist China was formed in 1949, the government inherited all the national maritime claims. Two dashes, bypassing Gulf of Tonkin as gesture to North Vietnam, were removed later in the 1950s. In 2009, Beijing submitted its ‘Nine-Dash Line’ map to the UN, saying that “it has indisputable sovereignty over the islands in the South China Sea and the adjacent waters”.
The Philippines brought its dispute with China to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague in 2013, angering Beijing. Manila complained that Beijing seized a reef about 225km from the Philippine coast and rejected China’s claim to sovereignty over waters within the ‘Nine-Dash Line’. Manila lodged the complaint under the 1994 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea ratified by both China and the Philippines. Manila argued that a country has sovereignty over waters 12 nautical miles from its coast, control over economic activities in waters on its continental shelf and up to 12 nautical miles from its coast.
A five-member panel of international legal experts was appointed in June 2013 to hear the case. The panel ruled in October 2015 that it had jurisdiction over at least seven of 15 claims raised by the Philippines. It further admitted that at the heart of the South China Sea dispute was the ‘Nine-Dash Line’. These dashes encircle 99% of South China Sea, an area the size of Mexico and vital to global trade. Although Beijing cited “historical evidence” to support its claims, Manila rejected the Chinese claims, saying that the UN Convention includes exceptions for historic rights.
Finally, the panel ruled on Tuesday that China breached the sovereign right of the Philippines by its actions in South China Sea. Besides China and the Philippines, other countries in the region, including Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam, claim parts of South China Sea. Now, Tuesday’s ruling sets a precedent on such disputes. China had the most at stake, for it has transformed reefs into artificial islands with military runways and naval harbours. The main aim of the Chinese activities in the area is to push the US out of the Western Pacific. Like other countries in the region, China, too, depends on shipping routes in the region. Beijing also is eager to lay claim to oil and resources to fuel its economy.
Even before the historic ruling (that can be considered as a stunning blow to the Asian superpower) was announced, China vowed to ignore any decision made by the court. “Whatever the ruling is, we won’t recognise it,” said a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson. He stressed: “We will have nothing to do with it and will not accept it. The area in dispute is rich in oil and gas fields and vital fishing grounds.” Later, a top Chinese Defence Ministry official said: “Our armed forces will firmly safeguard our maritime rights.” As a sign of defiance, a Chinese aircraft tested two new airports in the disputed Spratly Island on Tuesday.
Although China thrashed the ruling, the US said that it’s legally binding. In the Filipino social media, people used the term “Chexit” while welcoming the Hague-based Tribunal verdict. The use of the word “Chexit” shows the Filipino public’s desire for Chinese vessels to leave the water.
Immediately after The Hague court ruled against Chinese claims of economic and historical ownership over the resource rich waters of the South China Sea, India urged Beijing to respect the UN Law of Sea. In a statement, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs said: “Sea lanes of communication passing through South China Sea are critical for peace, stability, prosperity and development. India urges all parties to show utmost respect for the UNCLOS, which establishes the international legal order of the seas and oceans.”
India, which greeted the verdict with satisfaction, believes that the ruling will bolster its case for Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) membership and weaken Beijing’s opposition against New Delhi in the next plenary meeting. The verdict may also prove beneficial for India’s economic and strategic interests, as the South Asian country can explore oil in the South China Sea off Vietnam coast. The region is also critical for India, as more than 55% of its trade passes through the Straits of Malacca that opens into the South China Sea. India has a huge stake in ensuring freedom of navigation and overflight in the region.