A UN-backed international court ruled on Tuesday that China never had historic rights over islands in the South China Sea (SCS) but President Xi Jinping led Beijing’s dismissal of the verdict.
The ruling by the tribunal formed by The Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration, which backed claims made by the Philippines, is expected to stoke further tensions in Southeast Asia. Besides the Philippines, China is locked in disputes in the South China Sea with Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam.
The tribunal said though China had historically made use of the islands in question, there was no evidence it exercised exclusive rights over them.
In Beijing, Xi said China would not accept any proposition or action based on the award issued by the arbitral tribunal unilaterally initiated by the Philippines.
”China's territorial sovereignty and maritime interests in South China Sea, under any circumstances, will not be affected by the award,” he said.
“China is firmly committed to peace and stability in the South China Sea, and to settling the disputes with countries directly involved, through peaceful negotiations based on the recognition of historical facts and in accordance with international law.”
Xi chose to make the remarks at a meeting with European Council President Donald Tusk and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker soon after the ruling was delivered in the Netherlands.
The verdict itself was direct: the tribunal said China had violated the Philippines’ sovereign rights by exploring for resources in the region. China had also caused permanent and irreparable “harm to the coral reef environment” by building artificial islands, it added.
The tribunal said China’s claims to historic rights under the “nine dash line” were contrary to the UN Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS). Beijing had no entitlement to an economic zone within 200 miles of Mischief Reef or Thomas Shoal, it said.
The tribunal made it clear that it had jurisdiction to rule on China’s claim in the South China Sea.
The arbitration tribunal was formed under the UNCLOS. Both China and the Philippines are signatories to the convention. The verdict is binding on UNCLOS members but the Permanent Court of Arbitration has no powers of enforcement.
Foreign minister Wang Yi described the arbitration as a “political farce” and his ministry declared the verdict “null and void”, saying it had no binding force. “China neither accepts nor recognises it,” the ministry said in a statement.
The initiation of arbitration by the Philippines was aimed at denying “China's territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests in the South China Sea”, the statement said. China also would not “accept any means of third party dispute settlement”.
Foreign ministry spokesperson Lu Kang said China would not even “receive” a copy of the verdict because the foundation of the arbitration was “illegal”.
At a news conference hurriedly convened by the defence ministry, spokesperson Yang Yujun said the Chinese military will “resolutely protect the country's national sovereignty, security and maritime rights and interests, and will address threats and challenges”.
Responding to questions on the Chinese navy's recent drills in the South China Sea, Yang said the manoeuvre was a routine one in line with an annual exercise plan. The drill targeted potential situations at sea and was a live-fire test to boost the navy's capabilities, Yang said.
The view from Philippines was expectedly more positive, with foreign secretary Perfecto Yasay calling on all parties to “exercise restraint and sobriety”.
“The Philippines strongly affirms its respect for this milestone decision as an important contribution to ongoing efforts in addressing disputes in the South China Sea,” he said. The Philippines would pursue the peaceful resolution and management of disputes to enhance peace and stability in the region, he added.
Jay Batongbacal from the University of the Philippines’ Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea told HT: “The decision, practically a complete victory on all submissions, will reshape the regional discourse on the South China Sea disputes. Hopefully it will allow Philippines and China to take a step back with mutual respect, and re-engage in sober discussions for future fair resolution of their differences. Both parties now actually have an opportunity for statesmanship in directing the trajectory of the disputes.”
Batongbacal said he believed any decision that reinforces the principle of freedom of navigation would provide India with legal support for its presence in the South China Sea despite China's challenges and veiled intimidatory actions.
“India would be able to fully and freely exercise its maritime rights and freedoms in the South China Sea. Although not directly related to its unresolved border disputes with China, Indian presence in the region would almost certainly provide leverage in future diplomatic relations/negotiations with China over any issue, including border disputes,” he said.
As news of the verdict became public, a large number of police personnel were deployed around the Philippines embassy in Beijing’s Central Business District to prevent protesters from demonstrating in front of the compound. Police barricaded roads leading to the mission and sealed off access.
China had mounted a massive campaign against the arbitral tribunal, deploying its diplomats around the world to drum up support. Beijing said the tribunal had failed to clarify or identify the disputes between China and the Philippines in its ruling on jurisdiction.
“The arbitration process was carried out at a stunning speed, the ruling on the jurisdiction failed to give full consideration of China's claims although it ostensibly noticed them, the arbitration tribunal failed to complete the necessary legal analyses and it did not respect the principle of legal consistency in that some arbitrators altered positions without giving explanation,” state media reported.
In a related development, China’s state-run Xinhua news agency reported a Chinese civilian aircraft successfully carried out calibration tests on two new airports in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea on Tuesday.
It said the airports, on Mischief Reef and Subi Reef, will help with personnel transfers to the Spratlys.