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Tribunal rejects Beijing's South China Sea claims

It says China has no historic rights to Sea's resources; China rejects ruling as null and void; analysts say decision a 'huge win' for the Philippines
Wednesday, July 13, 2016 - 05:50
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Filipino activists celebrating the decision by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague at a restaurant in Manila on Tuesday.

Beijing

BEIJING'S claims to a vast swathe of the South China Sea are invalid, an international tribunal ruled on Tuesday, dealing a devastating diplomatic blow to China's ambitions in one of the world's most important flashpoints.

China, which boycotted the proceedings at the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague, rejected the ruling, calling it "null and void".

But analysts said it was a "huge win" for the Philippines, which brought the case.

The resource-rich, strategically vital waters of the South China Sea are disputed between the Asian giant - which claims almost all of them on the basis of a "nine-dash line" that first appeared on Chinese maps in the 1940s - and several other countries including the Philippines.

The row has embroiled the United States, which has deployed aircraft carriers and a host of other vessels to assert freedom of navigation in waters through which one-third of the global oil trade passes.

China says that its fishermen have visited the area for centuries, but the PCA tribunal said that under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), Beijing had not had exclusive control of it.

Any historic rights were "extinguished" when it signed up to UNCLOS, it said, and there was "no legal basis for China to claim historic rights to resources within the sea areas falling within the 'nine-dash line'", it said.

Crucially, it ruled that none of the Spratlys, a chain of outcrops in the south of the sea, were "islands" under the meaning of UNCLOS, meaning that whoever had sovereignty over them - an issue it did not address - they were not entitled to 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zones (EEZs) of their own.

Some sea areas were therefore definitely in the Philippines' EEZ, it said, as they were "not overlapped by any possible entitlement of China".

China had violated the Philippines' sovereign rights in its EEZ and the artificial islands Beijing has been furiously building in recent years - reshaping facts in the water in an effort to bolster its claim - have inflicted severe environmental damage, it added.

The decision was "as unfavourable to China as it can be", said Xie Yanmei, China analyst for the International Crisis Group.

The award by the five-member panel - chaired by a Ghanaian - "overwhelmingly favours the Philippines - a huge win", said M Taylor Fravel of MIT.

Singapore's Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) on Tuesday said that it supports the peaceful resolution of claimants in accordance with universally recognised principles of international law, including UNCLOS, without resorting to the threat or use of force.

"Singapore is not a claimant state and we do not take sides on the competing territorial claims," said an MFA spokesman. "As a small state, we strongly support the maintenance of a rules-based order that upholds and protects the rights and privileges of all states."

Singapore also supports the full and effective implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea and the "expeditious conclusion" of a legally-binding code of conduct in the South China Sea. The MFA spokesman added that Singapore values its "long-standing and friendly relations with all parties, bilaterally and in the context of Asean".

Manila welcomed the decision but Beijing reacted furiously, saying it "neither accepts nor recognises" the ruling. "The award is null and void and has no binding force," China's foreign ministry said on its website.

The official news agency Xinhua cited President Xi Jinping as saying the islands have been Chinese territory since ancient times, and Beijing will not accept any action based on the decision. China has consistently said the tribunal does not have jurisdiction on the issue - declaring the support of multiple countries for its stance, many of them poor but with significant trading relationships with it - and Xinhua reported the ruling under the headline: "Law-abusing tribunal issues ill-founded award".

In Washington, the State Department said the ruling was an "important contribution" to resolving regional disputes and should be seen as "final and legally binding".

But how the decision is enforced remains open to question.

In the short term, the decision is likely to escalate the "war of words" but would not immediately change the geopolitical dynamics in the sea, said Ms Xie of the International Crisis Group. "We're going to see a continuation of the chest thumping we've seen, especially from the China side," she said. AFP

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