China rejects South China Sea arbitration award, slams outside powers for interference

A satellite image of Chinese land reclamation in the Nansha Islands. Photo: DigitalGlobe/Getty Images

It was not surprising that the arbitration court in The Hague ruled in favor of the Philippines in the maritime dispute in which the island nation has challenged China's territorial claims over large swaths of the South China Sea.

And China's instant rejection of the ruling was also within expectations, in which the central government, the Foreign Ministry and President Xi Jinping successively conveyed a strong determination to defend China's territorial sovereignty and maritime rights in the resource-rich waters through which one third of global trade flows every year.

On Tuesday, the tribunal at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled that China does not enjoy the historic rights it says it has obtained since ancient times over all the waters within the nine-dash line covering the bulk of the South China Sea due to lack of evidence.

It predicated the sea features claimed by China as reefs rather than islands, emphatically depriving China of the right to establish an exclusive economic zone, which endows a country the maritime right to resources including fish, oil and gas within 200 nautical miles of the land mass.

According to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), an island gives a country the right to territorial waters of 12 nautical miles, a 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone and continental shelf, with a reef simply granting the 12-nautical-mile right. And a low-tide elevation has no significance, according to the UNCLOS.

The judges also nagged at China's massive land reclamation projects, which had caused "severe harm" to coral reefs around the construction sites and "violated its obligation to preserve and protect fragile ecosystems."

Less than an hour after the ruling was announced, China's Foreign Ministry returned fire in a written statement, in which it said that it "does not accept any means of third-party dispute settlement or any solution imposed on China". The ministry also snapped at the arbitration court's ignorance of the fact that the case the Philippines presented to the court substantially involves territorial sovereignty and maritime delimitation which are reasons China is entitled to use to reject an arbitration under Article 298 of the UNCLOS.

Article 298 stipulates that a state party is allowed to turn down an arbitration if the disputes concerning maritime delimitation, territorial sovereignty, historic rights and military activities cannot be solved through means and procedures recognized by the international community. Any of the above disputes, if denied by a state party, is not covered by the jurisdiction of an arbitration court, for which China made a declaration on optional exceptions in 2006.

The Foreign Ministry's view was echoed by President Xi who was quoted on Tuesday by state media as saying that "China's territorial sovereignty and maritime rights in the South China Sea will not be affected by the so-called South China Sea arbitration initiated by the Philippines in any way." Reiterating China's stance of resolving maritime disputes through negotiations based on the respect for historical facts and according to international law, he said that the disputed islands have been "Chinese territory since ancient times", according the state media.

Contest with US for regional dominance

The ruling comes as the US has strengthened deployment of more warships and military airplanes in the disputed waters of the South China Sea in what it calls the freedom of navigation operations in recent two years. In response to it, China has increased routine military patrols and expanded its land reclamation projects, which were criticized by the US and other claimants to the region as inspired by military purposes.

Ahead of the announcement of the ruling, the People's Liberation of Army (PLA) Navy conducted large-scale military exercises that lasted through a week in the South China Sea, in a bid to daunt the US which has aggravated the tense situation in the region by sending military forces.

The tensions in the South China Sea have heightened since 2009, when the Obama government cranked up the Asia-Pacific rebalancing strategy, which directs at China's rising regional influence and emboldened Southeast Asian claimants, especially the Philippines, to be more provocative in the maritime disputes with China in the South China Sea.

In early 2009, the Philippines passed a domestic law to forcibly incorporate the Huangyan Island and some islets and reefs of the Nansha Islands into its territory, following which Vietnam claimed sovereignty over the Xisha Islands and Nansha Islands in a continent shelf-delimitation lawsuit filed to the United Nations in July of that year.

The US appears to have scrapped its commitment to taking no position on the sovereignty claims in the South China Sea. Instead, it is moving toward directly intervening in the maritime disputes in form of vocal rhetoric by top government officials and military patrols near the 12 nautical miles of the islands claimed by China.

On Monday, in a commentary titled "Who is violating international law on earth", the People's Daily, the mouthpiece of the Communist Party of China (CPC), bombarded the US for its leading role in instigating the Philippines to file the lawsuit against China, and for using the freedom of navigation as an excuse to promote militarization of the South China Sea.

"Under the Asia-Pacific rebalancing strategy, the South China Sea issue has swiftly become a key tool the US could use to maintain its regional supremacy and strategically contain China," said the commentary, which cited the US' rejection of a ruling of the International Court of Justice made in favor of Nicaragua in an arbitration case in the 1980s as an apparent violation of international law.

On Tuesday, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi snubbed the South China Sea arbitration initiated by the Philippines as a "political farce" under the cloak of law, pointing out that it was "plotted and manipulated by certain forces outside the region", even though he did not mention the US.

On the other side of the Pacific Ocean, US State Department spokesperson John Kirby on Tuesday called for China to act as a global and responsible power it professes to be by complying with the July 12 ruling. He further urged China not to militarize the South China Sea as the world is watching.

Analysts say that China is more likely to draw up an air defense identification zone in the South China Sea, like what it did in East China Sea in 2013, when tensions between China and Japan over the Diaoyu Islands dispute reached the peak. After the unilateral declaration of the air defense identification zone, the estrangement in the East China Sea, which was sparked by Japan's "nationalization" of some of the Diaoyu Islands, had been increasingly overshadowed by the territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

On the economic front, China could impose economic sanctions on the Philippines, banning importing goods from it, as China is a major trade partner with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member. Trade with China has made a huge contribution to the Philippines' GDP.

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