tuesday, 12 july of 2016

China’s Claim to Most of South China Sea Has No Legal Basis, Court Says

An international tribunal ruled on Tuesday that China’s claims to historic and economic rights in most of the South China Sea have no legal basis, dealing a severe setback to Beijing that could intensify its efforts to establish its control by force.

The tribunal at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague said China couldn’t claim historic rights in all the waters within a “nine-dash” line used by Beijing to delineate its South China Sea claims.

That was the most significant element of an unprecedented legal challenge to China’s claims that was brought in 2013 by the Philippines, one of five governments whose claims in the South China Sea overlap with China’s under the nine-dash line.

In another blow for Beijing, the tribunal decided that China wasn’t entitled to an exclusive economic zone, or EEZ, extending up to 200 nautical miles from any outcrop in the Spratlys archipelago including the largest, Itu Aba, which is claimed by China but controlled by Taiwan.

“This deals a direct blow to China’s most fundamental claim in the South China Sea,” said Shi Yinhong, professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing, of the tribunal’s decision on Beijing’s nine-dash line.

“The tribunal ruling appears to be overwhelmingly in favor of the Philippines’s claims, comes after several years of escalating tension in the regioneven more so than expected.”

The ruling, based on a United Nations convention on maritime law, comes after several years of escalating tension in the region as China has alarmed the U.S. and its allies by using its rapidly expanding naval and air power to assert territorial claims and challenge U.S. military supremacy in Asia.

The Philippines case is seen as a test of China’s commitment to a rules-based international order which the U.S. and its allies say has been undermined by Beijing’s recent military activities, including construction of seven fortified artificial islands in the South China Sea.

China didn’t take part in the tribunal, which it said had no jurisdiction on the case, and Chinese officials have said repeatedly in recent weeks that Beijing won't comply with the ruling.

The unanimous ruling by the tribunal’s five judges is legally binding for China and the Philippines but can only be enforced through international pressure.

The ruling on Itu Aba is important because the U.N. maritime convention allows countries to build artificial islands in their own EEZs, and all of the seven structures China has built lie within 200 nautical miles of Itu Aba, which Taiwan calls Taiping Island.

The tribunal said that neither Itu Aba or any other Spratlys outcrop met the legal definition of a natural island that could support human habitation. That also means that China has no legal claim to an EEZ overlapping that of the Philippines.

Shortly after the ruling, China’s Foreign Ministry said China neither accepts nor recognizes it, declaring it “null and void” and without “binding force.” It said China would continue to abide by international law and “basic norms” governing international relations. China’s Defense Ministry said the decision wouldn’t affect its approach in the South China Sea and that it would ”unswervingly protect the nation’s sovereignty, security and maritime rights.”

On Chinese social-media platforms, users expressed defiance. “On territorial issues there’s no room for debate. In my view, territory to a country is like life to humanity,” wrote one user.

Many echoed the government’s line on the verdict, heaping scorn on the process. “To Chinese people, the South China Sea ruling is just a piece of waste paper—they can take it and throw it directly in the trash,” wrote one. The “waste paper” language had previously been invoked by a veteran Chinese diplomat in a speech in Washington.

Numerous users expressed a distinct anger with the U.S., which China views as having pushed the Philippines to bring the suit to advance its own position in the region.

The U.S. and its allies, including all of the Group of Seven large industrialized democracies and the 28 members of the European Union, have publicly expressed their support for the arbitration process.

In a statement ahead of a meeting between EU leaders and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, European Council President Donald Tusk raised the issue of the Tuesday ruling. “The rule-based international order is in our common interest and both China and the EU have to protect it, as this is in our people’s best interest,” Mr. Tusk said.

An EU official said that following the comments, Mr. Li set aside the planned agenda for Tuesday’s meetings to present the Chinese view on the ruling and on human-rights issues. Those topics were supposed to be discussed Wednesday.

Later Tuesday, Chinese President Xi Jinping said Beijing wouldn’t accept any claims based on the ruling, according to state broadcaster China Central Television.

In the tense buildup to the ruling, a U.S. aircraft carrier strike group and other navy ships have been patrolling in the South China Sea, while China held military exercises in the area over the last seven days.

Just minutes after the ruling was made public on Tuesday, China’s official Xinhua News Agency reported that a CAAC Cessna CE-680, marketed as a midsize corporate jet, successfully completed test flights to new airports on Mischief Reef and Subi Reef, the two largest of the artificial islands it has built in the Spratlys.

In another damaging setback for Beijing, the tribunal ruled that China couldn’t claim 12 nautical miles of territorial seas around Mischief Reef and Subi Reef, which both have airstrips.

That means that U.S. and foreign naval ships can legally come within 12 nautical miles of those two structures without restriction. However, the tribunal did rule that China had a right to 12 nautical miles of territorial waters around five more of its artificial islands.

The tribunal ruled that China had violated the Philippines sovereignty in its EEZ by building artificial islands, interfering with Philippine fishing and oil exploration, and failing to prevent Chinese fishing boats from operating there.

It said China had interfered with Philippine fishing boats exercising their traditional fishing rights around the disputed Scarborough Shoal. It said that China hadn’t fulfilled its legal obligation to stop Chinese fishermen from harming the environment in the South China Sea.

And it said China’s island building had violated the obligations of a state during the dispute resolution process.

The Philippines welcomed the ruling. Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay called it a “milestone” in efforts to address regional disputes and called on “those concerned to exercise restraint and sobriety.”

The case was brought by the previous Philippine government. New Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has taken a different stance, suggesting that he might be willing to negotiate directly with China.

China says dozens of countries—many of them small, developing nations—support its position, although only a handful of them have issued their own statements explicitly backing Beijing’s right to ignore the tribunal.

U.S. officials have warned that China could respond to the ruling by starting land reclamation at another disputed reef near the Philippines, or declaring an air defense identification zone over the South China Sea.

China hasn’t announced any such plans, but says it has the right to do both.

(Published by The Wall Street Journal - July 12, 2016)

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