China’s bad day in international court

The Chinese government, as you know, claims almost the entire South China Sea as its territorial waters. This claim is disputed by, well, everybody else, since it doesn’t follow any of the generally accepted rules about territorial vs. international waters, unless you think China should be allowed to create new islands in the sea and then claim the waters around those islands. And allowing countries to create their own new land in order to claim new territorial waters doesn’t seem like a principle that would be good for maritime law or international stability.

Well, the Philippines decided to take China to court–specifically, to an international tribunal at The Hague–over China’s claims, and the ruling came down yesterday decidedly not in China’s favor:

In its most significant finding, the tribunal rejected China’s argument that it enjoys historic rights over most of the South China Sea. That could give the governments of Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam more leverage in their own maritime disputes with Beijing.

The tribunal also said that China had violated international law by causing “irreparable harm” to the marine environment, endangering Philippine ships and interfering with Philippine fishing and oil exploration.

“It’s an overwhelming victory. We won on every significant point,” said the Philippines’ chief counsel in the case, Paul S. Reichler.

The tribunal rejected Chinese claims on every major point and even preempted some claims that China hasn’t yet made but has threatened to make. The point about environmental harm was particularly welcome, given that most of the attention on China’s island-building program has focused on its geopolitical implications, but the process of creating man-made islands is incredibly destructive to the surrounding environment. It was, it seems, a thorough legal ass kicking.

The dueling territorial claims in the South China Sea. China’s, in red, was the issue in yesterday’s ruling. (Wikimedia)

So what happens now? The tribunal’s ruling is binding under international law, but like so much of international law, it’s also unenforceable. The Chinese government has already said it simply won’t accept the ruling, and there’s not much anybody can really do about that short of military escalation (a route that nobody seems prepared to take, for obvious reasons). The other nations around the sea have been trying to reach some kind of accord with China, but there are actually fears that the decision was so lopsided that it will deter Beijing from participating in negotiations. China values its claims over the sea both for the waterway’s strategic importance as well as for the considerable energy deposits that are believed to sit underneath it. The ruling may add fuel to the fire (mostly by making Beijing angrier and more obstinate) in what might be the biggest East Asian maritime dispute, between China and Japan, which is in fact over drilling rights around the Senkaku Islands.



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