South China Sea dispute: what you need to know about The Hague court ruling

Beijing asserts sweeping ownership in these contested waters. Now an international tribunal has ruled in favour of the Philippines in case over territorial control

What is happening?

An international tribunal in The Hague overwhelmingly backed the Philippines in a case on the disputed waters of the South China Sea, ruling that rocky outcrops claimed by China - some of which are exposed only at low tide – cannot be used as the basis of territorial claims. It said some of the waters in question are “within the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines, because those areas are not overlapped by any possible entitlement of China”. The tribunal furthermore found that China had violated the Philippines’ sovereign rights in those waters by interfering with its fishing and petroleum exploration and by constructing artificial islands.

Why is that important?

Control of the South China Sea is the most contentious and explosive diplomatic issue in east Asia, with China asserting sovereignty over maritime areas that span 3.5m square kilometres but are also claimed by Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines and Japan. Washington has become deeply involved, backing those against China and conducting military patrols.

Although the case was raised by the Philippines, it will affect all these countries as it effectively punches a series of holes in China’s all-encompassing “nine-dash” demarcation line, a dotted marker in Chinese maps that stretches deep into the South China Sea. It effectively declares large areas of the sea to be neutral international waters.

The South China Sea is thought to have significant oil and gas reserves and is a route for about $4.5tn (£3.4tn) in trade. There are giant fisheries and lanes for half of all commercial shipping. The Chinese president, Xi Jinping, has vowed to “resolutely defend” his country’s interests in the region.

South China Sea locator

The lead up to the ruling was fraught. China’s foreign minister called the US secretary of state, John Kerry, by telephone last week and warned against moves that infringe on China’s sovereignty. And Beijing conducted military drills, deploying at least two guided missile destroyers and a missile frigate.

Bonnie Glaser, the director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) thinktank in Washington, said a ruling that questioned or rejected China’s “nine-dash line” would not invalidate all of Beijing’s claims to land or maritime zones in the South China Sea. “[But] it would really limit the amount of water that the Chinese could have any legal sovereignty claim to.

Who made the judgment?

The Philippines raised the case in 2013 in a five-judge permanent court of arbitration in The Hague, arguing that Beijing’s claim violated UN conventions.

Beijing has rejected the court’s authority to rule on the case and has also attempted to discredit its work as biased by pointing to the fact that a judge from China’s regional rival Japan was involved in its creation.

What has been happening in the meantime?

China has upped activities in the South China Sea in recent months to further entrench its presence in the region. It has used dredging ships to pour sand on coral reefs and turn them into islands. On these islands the Chinese military has installed missile launchers, runways, barracks and other security facilities.

The court was asked to investigate whether these reclaimed areas are indeed considered “islands” under international law, which are granted exclusive economic zones. The Philippines said many should be considered “rocks”.

The UN Convention of the Law of the Sea normally stipulates a 200 nautical mile zone of the coast for economic exclusivity. But China claims 90% of the area, a much larger zone.

The Philippines refers to the area of the South China Sea that it controls as the West Philippine Sea. Manila has welcomed former second world war enemy Japan to conduct joint military exercises and also former coloniser United States to land fighter jets in the archipelago nation.

How is China likely to react?

Experts are divided on how China will react to the verdict. Some believe China could push back aggressively if the court comes down firmly against its interests.

China reacted angrily to the verdict in the immediate aftermath. Xinhua, the country’s official news agency, hit out at what it described as an “ill-founded” ruling that was “naturally null and void”.

China has long argued its sovereignty to the area under the “nine-dash line”, in which its vessels sailed as far back as the Han dynasty 2,000 years ago.

Possible forms of retaliation include landing fighter jets on airstrips Beijing has built in disputed areas, declaring an air defence identification zone, or ADIZ, over the South China Sea or kicking off a dredging campaign at Scarborough Shoal, which is claimed by both the Philippines and China.

There is a precedent for violence. During the 1970s and 1980s, China and Vietnam used force several times, resulting in dozens of deaths and several sunken ships.

Glaser, the CSIS expert, said she believed Beijing would seek to avoid “destabilising actions”, particularly with China set to host the G20 in September. “They are just dead set on having a successful meeting … it is Xi Jinping’s reputation at stake,” she said.

“[But] there is the potential that things go the other direction and that is that the Chinese think that they are being bullied, they are being victimised and that the party must defend China’s sovereignty and every inch of China’s territory. In which case we could see some rather provocative moves.

“The notion that they might start landing fighters … would really escalate tensions between the US and China and make the region very nervous.”

Ashley Townshend, a fellow at the University of Sydney’s United States Studies Centre, said he believed Beijing would seek a “middle path: a way to not capitulate but also a way to not escalate”.

That would probably involve continuing to conduct military exercises in the region as a way of showing strength without further inflaming tensions.

“China has tended in this context [of the South China Sea] to seize the initiative when it views an opportunity and it hasn’t tended to push ahead when it meets opposition,” Townshend said.

How will the Philippines react?

Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippines’ newly elected president, has left experts guessing as to how he might respond to a ruling that is likely to be in his country’s favour. “The Philippines is a completely unknown quanity here. We just don’t know what Duterte is going to do,” said Glaser. “He’s a wild card.”

Duterte has vowed to ride a jet ski into disputed areas of the South China Sea in defiance of Beijing. But it is also possible that he will seek to minimise the court’s ruling in order to improve ties with China.

Duterte has backed multilateral talks to settle the row. Closer relations with Beijing would give Manila access to Chinese loans and much needed investment in infrastructure, and could also help ease tensions in the region.

Who has China got on its side?

Russia has backed Beijing’s position that direct talks should take place.

And portraying itself as the victim of a US conspiracy to contain its rise, Beijing has scoured the globe for supporters in its case, no matter how disconnected they might be from the subject. In late May the foreign ministry in Beijing said Vanuatu, Lesotho and Palestine had joined its side.

“Countries that harbour no selfish interests and understand the South China Sea sympathise with and endorse China’s just position on this issue,” spokesperson Hua Chunying said.

Townshend said China had good historical reasons to be concerned about “more powerful external countries ganging up on it and telling it what it is entitled to do and not do”.

“[But] it is very difficult for China to play the victim card when you look at the scale and speed and content of what it has built and put on the islands.”


Oliver Holmes in Bangkok and Tom Phillips in Beijing

The GuardianTramp

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