The Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) at The Hague ruled (PDF) in favor of the Philippines on July 12 in its dispute with China over most of the South China Sea. Manila brought the case in 2013 disputing Beijing's territorial claims, a move China decried as "unilateral." The PCA concluded that China does not have the right to resources within its "nine-dash line," an area covering nearly the entire 3.5 million square-kilometer Sea—believed to be rich in oil and minerals. The tribunal found that none of the disputed Spratly Islands are "capable of generating extended maritime zones." Therefore, the tribunal wrote that it could "declare that certain sea areas are within the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines, because those areas are not overlapped by any possible entitlement of China." China entirely denies the PCA's jurisdiction in the matter, and rejected the ruling.
The ruling further found that China had violated the Philippines' sovereign rights in the disputed zone by interfering with fishing and oil exploration, building artificial islands, and failing to prevent Chinese fleets from fishing in the zone. It particularly accused China of improperly restricting Philippine fishing rights at Scarborough Shoal, adding that China had seriously risked collision when its patrol boats physically obstructed Philippine fishing vessels. (The Guardian, Jurist)
The ruling also implicitly dealt a blow to Taiwan's similar claim to territory within an "11-dash line." Among the "high-tide features" in the Spratly Islands deemed to be "rocks" and not islands (and therefore not entitled to 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zones) is Taiwan-controlled Taiping Island. Taiwan has also rejected the ruling and said it is not legally binding on the Tapei government.
Taiwan maintains a small military presence on Taiping Island, as well as the nearby Pratas (Dongsha) Islands. Taiwan's new President Tsai Ing-wen responded to the PCA ruling by dispatching a frigate into the South China Sea, personally reviewing the sailors onboard before it embarked.
The "nine-dash line" runs some 2,000 kilometers from the Chinese mainland to within a few hundred kilometers of the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam. It first appeared on a Chinese map as an "11-dash line" in 1947, as the then-Republic of China (RoC) navy took control of several islands that had been occupied by Japan during World War II.
After the People's Republic of China was established in 1949 and RoC forces fled to Taiwan, Beijing declared itself the sole legitimate sovereign over China and inherited all RoC maritime claims. But two "dashes" were removed in the 1950's to bypass the Gulf of Tonkin in deference to communist North Vietnam.
Beijing tightened its grip in the northern part of the claimed waters in the 1970's after it expelled the South Vietnamese navy from the Paracel Islands in a brief but deadly clash. Seven out of about 200 reefs in the Spratly Islands came under Chinese control in the 1980's and '90's, and Scarborough Shoal in 2012. Vietnam continues to control the largest number of islands (or "rocks") and reefs in the Spratlys, totallng 29.
Other claimants to areas of the disputed waters include Malaysia and Brunei, which have not (yet) voiced objections to the ruling.
Under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), a nation has sovereignty over waters extending 12 nautical miles from its coast and exclusive control over economic activities 200 nautical miles out. But Beijing maintains it has historical claims to the maritime territory dating well before the 1982 UNCLOS. (The Star, Malaysia, Channel NewsAsia, Singapore, Focus Taiwan)
Editorials in China's Global Times ahead of the ruling pointed to a US hand behind the case: "Washington has deployed two carrier battle groups around the South China Sea, and it wants to send a signal by flexing its muscles: As the biggest powerhouse in the region, it awaits China's obedience." The editorial openly called for China to be prepared for a military confrontation with the US, saying: "it should be able to let the US pay a cost it cannot stand if it intervenes in the South China Sea dispute by force."
A commentary in China Daily by Zhu Feng, director of the China Center for Collaborative Studies of the South China Sea at Nanjing University, charged that "the Beijing-Manila dispute is being used as a bargaining chip in a strategic contest between the major powers in the Asia-Pacific region."
We have noted contradictory centrifugal and a centripetal tendencies at work in the Asia-Pacific region (as in the world generally). In the prior, a contest between Washington and Beijing for primacy; in the latter, an interdependency in which the US needs access to cheap Chinese labor, and China needs access to the US market, in order for both to stave off economic collapse—a slightly more civilized version of the Mutually Assured Destruction of the last Cold War. The PCA case, and the alarming sabre-rattling in the South China Sea, are manifestations of the centrifugal tendency.
As a manifestation of the centripetal, not two weeks before the ruling, a Chinese fleet arrived in Hawaii's Pearl Harbor to participate in the multilateral RIMPAC 2016 naval exercises. It was the second time China participated in the RIMPAC exercises since their debut in 2014. (China Daily)
It is likely that nobody actually intends to go to war in the South China Sea. But brinkmanship is a dangerous game, and events have a habit of taking on a life of their own. The stakes for world peace (such as it is) are frighteningly high. The imperative of controlling the likely oil resources of the contested waters makes a neither/nor position even more incumbent upon global anti-war forces. We continue to say that the real progressive demand is that all sides stop their dangerous brinkmanship, and that China, the Philippines and all other regional powers leave the Spratly Islands oil-fields alone. Risking world war for the privilege of spewing more carbon into the atmosphere? Really?