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South China Seas Crisis – International Tribunal Ruling

July 21, 2016

Last week, the International Arbitral Tribunal released its findings on a case filed by the Philippines, against China, with regard to disputes in the South China Sea. The five-member Tribunal ruled on the merits of the Philippines’ case, which was based on international law as described in the United Nations Conventions on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS; 1982). Since 1949, China has repeatedly asserted, via its “9-dash line” map, that it maintains traditional rights to nearly the entirety of the area known as the South China Seas (also called the West Philippine Sea), including exclusive rights to fishing, to land forms (e.g., reefs, atolls, rocks), and to economic activity above, in, and under the sea.

The area of specific contention in this case was the Spratly Islands, which are claimed by China, the Philippines, and Viet Nam. Many of the land features in the Spratly Islands lie within the Philippines’ 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Over the past several decades, China has embarked on land reclamation activities on several of the reefs and shoals in the Spratlys. While China has made no direct statements about what has been built, satellite imagery shows what appear to be military facilities on several of the features.

The rulings of PCA Case #2013-19, released by the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague, essentially provided legal jurisdiction to the Philippines for all matters addressed in the suit. Further, the rulings called out China for its violation of international agreements on harvesting of endangered species and environmental care. Some believe that China’s claims are motivated by energy security needs, others by fishing protectionism, and still others by international security concerns. For a discussion of these and other motivations, see this article by the Jackson School’s own Scott Montgomery.

Earlier this month, the Jackson School Master of Arts in Applied International Studies (MAAIS) program held a two-day international crisis negotiation simulation on the South China Seas disputes and claims.

The tribunal findings did not consider any disputes between Viet Nam and the Philippines. The two nations are working to resolve those conflicting claims between themselves.


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