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UN tribunal rejects China’s claim over disputed islands

13 July 2016


Filipinos rejoiced but their government called for restraint after the United Nations Arbitral Tribunal which ruled that the disputed islands on the South China Sea (West Philippine Sea) belong to the Philippines. China, however, refused to recognize the decision.
The Hague-based tribunal released the decision on July 12 three years after the Philippines filed the case. China did not participate in the hearings as it refused to recognize jurisdiction of an court and insisted on resolving the territorial dispute through direct talks with the Philippine government.
China claims almost all of the South China Sea, including reefs and islands also claimed by neighboring countries like Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam. The Permanent Court of Arbitration said there was no evidence that China had historically exercised exclusive control over the waters or resources.
The PCA is an arbitration tribunal under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which both the Philippines and China have signed and recognized.
The decision was a rebuke of China’s aggressive position on the disputed islands such as building concrete structures on the islands while asserting its ownership of the territory.
The Philippines under then President Benigno Aquino III elevated the case to the UN body in January 2013, said to be the first time for the Chinese government to have been summoned before an international justice system.
The tribunal rejected China’s argument that it enjoys historic rights over most of the South China Sea, a vast expanse rich in fish as well as other natural resources, including oil and gas. It said: “The tribunal concluded that there was no legal basis for China to claim historic rights to resources within the sea areas falling within the ‘nine-dash-line’.”
Further, it said: “Having found that none of the features claimed by China was capable of generating an exclusive economic zone, the tribunal found that it could—without delineating a boundary— declare that certain sea areas are within the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines, because those areas are not overlapped by any possible entitlement of China.”
The tribunal also said that China violated international law by causing “irreparable harm” to the marine environment, endangering Philippine ships and interfering with Philippine fishing and oil exploration.
It is not clear how the Philippines can immediately enforce the ruling, and how it will affect its relations with China. Experts said it could force Manila and Beijing back to the negotiating table — or prompt other countries to take similar legal action.
Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay hailed the ruling as a “milestone decision” and said the government’s experts were studying it. “In the meantime, we call on all those concerned to exercise restraint and sobriety,” he said.
China’s Foreign Ministry denounced the ruling. China “solemnly declares that the award is null and void and has no binding force. China neither accepts nor recognizes it,” the ministry said in a statement.
It added that Manila’s “unilateral initiation of arbitration” manifested “bad faith,” and it called the tribunal “unjust and unlawful.”
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