AN international tribunal in The Netherlands on Tuesday ruled against China in a bitter row over territorial claims to the South China Sea that is likely to ratchet up regional tensions.
“The tribunal concluded that there was no legal basis for China to claim historic rights within the sea areas falling within the ‘nine-dash line’,” the Permanent Court of Arbitration said in a statement.
All eyes were watching for reaction from the Asian political and military powerhouse, which had fired off a barrage of criticism even before the decision by the PCA in The Hague was announced.
China asserts sovereignty over almost all of the strategically vital waters in the face of rival claims from its Southeast Asian neighbors.
Malacañang said it would study the court’s decision.
Solicitor General Jose Calida was expected to provide President Rodrigo Duterte a synopsis of the ruling Wednesday, and a complete and thorough interpretation of it in five days, said Communications Secretary Martin Andanar.
Beijing said it did not accept or recognize the UN tribunal’s ruling in a statement on its foreign ministry’s website.
“The award is null and void and has no binding force,” the ministry said. “China neither accepts nor recognizes it.”
Beijing “does not accept any means of third party dispute settlement or any solution imposed on China,” it added, reiterating its long-standing position on the dispute.
Manila had lodged the suit against Beijing in 2013, saying that after 17 years of negotiations it had exhausted all political and diplomatic avenues.
Beijing waged a months-long campaign to discredit the panel, which it says has no jurisdiction in the multinational dispute, and it refused to take part in the case.
The state-run China Daily topped its front page with a picture of Woody Island in the Paracels, emblazoned: “Arbitration invalid.”
English-language headlines on the official Xinhua news agency included: “South China Sea arbitration abuses international law: Chinese scholar,” “Permanent Court of Arbitration must avoid being used for political purposes” and “The sea where Chinese fishermen live and die.”
Ahead of the decision, Duterte had signaled he did not want to antagonize China, saying he would not “taunt or flaunt” a favorable ruling and would seek a “soft landing” with China.
China’s claims were first enshrined in a map drawn in the 1940s with a nine-dash line stretching south from China and encircling almost all of the sea, although it says Chinese fishermen have been using it for centuries.
To bolster its position it has rapidly turned reefs into artificial islands capable of hosting military planes.
It has held naval drills between the Paracels and the southern Chinese island of Hainan in recent days.
US naval destroyers have been patrolling near the Chinese-claimed Scarborough Shoal and Spratly Islands, supported by aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan, the US-based Navy Times reported.
Chinese state media have said Beijing will not take a “single step back” after the ruling, and President Xi Jinping said earlier this month that China would never compromise on sovereignty, adding: “We are not afraid of trouble.”
China had sought diplomatic support around the world, and foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said its latest backers included Angola, Madagascar and Papua New Guinea, showing that “justice and righteousness always have popular support.”
“Who is upholding the sanctity of international law and who is breaking international law, I think people are all clear about that,” Lu said.
Manila lodged its suit against Beijing in 2013, saying China was in violation of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos), to which both countries are signatories.
One of the key issues was whether the land features in the area are islands capable of supporting human habitation—which under Unclos are entitled to territorial waters and an exclusive economic zone—or rocks, which only have territorial waters, or low-tide elevations, which get neither.
If none of the outcrops are islands, then none of the claimants to them would gain sole rights to major expanses of the waters around them.
“The ruling can reduce the scope of the South China Sea disputes, but will not solve them,” said analysts Yanmei Xie and Tim Johnston of the International Crisis Group in a report.
The ruling was likely to “escalate the war of words,” they said, but added: “Escalation to military standoffs is not inevitable.”
China could choose to withdraw from Unclos, or begin building on Scarborough Shoal, which Washington would view as a provocation.
Beijing could also declare an air defense identification zone over the South China Sea, claiming the right to interrogate aircraft passing through the airspace, or try to remove a ship grounded by the Philippines on Second Thomas Shoal for use as a base.
Alternatively, it could move to reduce tensions.
Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay said Friday that Manila hoped to open direct talks with Beijing on the dispute, and presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella said Tuesday: “The top priority will be national interest.”
The Philippine Embassy in China has warned its citizens to beware of personal “threats” and avoid political debates.
Nationalist demonstrations are not rare in China, sometimes apparently with the tacit backing of authorities.
More than 20 Chinese police were positioned outside the Philippine Embassy on Tuesday, with more in vans nearby—a significantly larger presence than usual—along with two lorries loaded with crowd control barriers, a possible indication that authorities expected protests at the building.
President Duterte had earlier warned his Cabinet members to avoid using the arbitral court’s decision to “taunt or flaunt,” saying he doesn’t want to “put the country in an awkward position.”
Abella said the President was likely to call a meeting of his Cabinet once the decision was released.
Over the course of negotiations, the Duterte administration had repeatedly said it would like to pursue bilateral talks with China after the arbitral court hands over its decision.
Ahead of the tribunal’s decision, Vietnam accused the Chinese coastguard of sinking a fishing boat near a disputed island chain.
Two Vietnamese boats were chased by a pair of Chinese coastguard ships on Saturday afternoon off Vietnam’s Quang Ngai province, the Vietnam Fisheries Society (Vinafis) said in a statement.
One ship was boarded by Chinese coastguards who forced the crew overboard, Vinafis said, while a second vessel was prevented from reaching the stranded fishermen.
“Chinese men jumped onto fisherman Vo Van Luu’s boat, struck the Vietnamese sailors and... sunk the vessel,” forcing five crew members overboard, the statement said.
The five fishermen remained in the sea until dark, when the second Vietnamese vessel was able to approach the area.
Vinafis condemned the incident and demanded compensation from China.
Territorial waters can extend from 12 to 200 nautical miles from the shoreline of states, depending on whether they are classed as islands, rocks or a national coastline. The Philippines argues that such rights do not apply to artificial islands.
China’s Asian rivals also claim that the nine-dash line is illegal as it cuts through the territorial waters of states, as defined by international law.
The energy-rich South China Sea has some of the world’s most important shipping lanes, in which more than $5 trillion of trade passes every year.
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