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UN Tribunal Ruling Not in Favor of China’s South China Sea Claims

Delivering a huge victory for the Philippines, an international tribunal on Tuesday ruled that China’s claims to “historic rights” in the South China Sea are invalid.

The Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, Netherlands, stated that there was no evidence that China had historically claimed exclusive control over land and resources in the region. The five-judge panel said China’s artificial island-building operations violated the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in addition to its decision to deny Filipinos access to traditional fishing areas.

Because China claimed almost all of the South China Sea, a waterway used for an estimated $5 trillion in annual trade, the Philippines filed the suit with the Hague tribunal in 2013. The Scarborough Shoal fishing region is part of the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.

“This historic decision not only vindicates the Philippines’ claims, it provides much-needed clarity concerning the parties’ legal rights and obligations under the United Nations Law of the Sea Convention,” said Paul Reichler, lead attorney in the case on behalf of the Philippines.

China and its government opposed the ruling as they did not acknowledge or accept it. “The award is null and void and has no binding force. China neither accepts nor recognizes it,” said China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in a statement.

Because there is still some disagreement about the decision, what’s most important now is finding a way for all parties to move forward. Former U.S. ambassador to Asian Development Bank Curtis S. Chin says this will likely “need to include a ‘face-saving’ way for China to back down from its saber-rattling stance.”

East Asia specialist Sean King of Park Strategies believes the ruling is unlikely to resolve the competing claims in the South China Sea.

“The decision is a rhetorical rebuke for Beijing, but it won’t mean much in the real world other than to galvanize forces already hostile to Beijing. This is just a step in a long process,” said King.

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