The UN's Permanent Court of Arbitration found there is no legal basis for China to claim historic rights to resources within its so-called nine-dash line, which covers most of the South China Sea.
It found that China had interfered with traditional Philippine fishing rights at Scarborough Shoal and other fishing grounds and had breached the Philippines’ sovereign rights by exploring for oil and gas near the Reed Bank, another feature in the region.
None of China’s reefs and holdings in the Spratly Islands entitled it to a 200-mile exclusive economic zone, according to the Court. Its construction activities violated the sovereign rights of other countries, were illegal or violated the Convention on the Law of the Sea.
The Court found that Chinese fishermen, protected by Chinese maritime police and naval ships, had exploited depleted or endangered species of fish and sea life. It cited Chinese reclamation projects as destroying fragile ecological systems in the Spratlys.
Paragraph 1201 is the Court’s conclusion and is reproduced below.
“The Tribunal considers it beyond dispute that both Parties are obliged to comply with the Convention, including its provisions regarding the resolution of disputes, and to respect the rights and freedoms of other States under the Convention. Neither Party contests this, and the Tribunal is therefore not persuaded that it is necessary or appropriate for it to make any further Declaration.”
Ironically, China’s insistence on the civilian nature of the installations it has built on its reclaimed islands in the South China Sea enabled the Permanent Court to accept jurisdiction of the Philippine claim. Had the Chinese claimed the man-made islets and islands were military installations, the Court would have had no jurisdiction, according to the Court’s own findings.
The full text of the Court’s findings and declarations runs to 479 pages. The Court found in favor of most of the Philippine claims, but its findings and declarations are devastating to Chinese claims and activities.
China refused to participate in the case. The Court acknowledged that it was not settling a dispute. Instead it said it had the authority to make findings about the rights of the party before it under the Convention on the Law of the Sea and their implications for parties not represented.
The Court found that almost every action China has taken in the Spratly Islands is in violation of the Convention on the Law of the Sea, is illegal, fails to support Chinese claims to the South China Sea as territorial waters or fails to support a claim to a 200nm exclusive economic zone around any of the above-tide land features. Those features that are underwater at low tide support no sea claims under the Convention.
The Court found that Chinese reclamation projects violate the Philippine’s right of ownership to Mischief Reef. Chinese reclamation and airstrip construction on Mischief Reef is on Philippine territory. China’s occupation is illegal. Chinese action to drive off Philippine fishermen is illegal because Mischief Reef is within the Philippine 200nm Exclusive Economic Zone.
In almost every island and islet, the Court found that China’s activities violate the Convention on the Law of the Sea. It also found that China’s entire South China Sea project is an ecological disaster.
Perhaps most important of all, the Court found and declared that, in signing the Convention on the Law of the Sea, China and every signatory acknowledge that the Convention supersedes historical rights and claims.
Chinese response. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China said the award of the Permanent Court of Arbitration “is null and void and has no binding force. China neither accepts nor recognizes it.”
Chinese behavior since at least 1 July indicated the leadership expected the Court to find in favor of the Philippines.
The ruling tends to discredit President Xi’s policies of good neighborliness and statesmanship in the conduct of international affairs. The Court implies that China is a bully and an outlaw state, confirming the settled view of most of the Southeast Asian states. The Court’s ruling will rally opposition against China.