The Permanent Court of Arbitration’s unanimous ruling on South China Sea proves that nations that cannot compete with China militarily can turn to international law and arbitration to challenge Beijing on equal terms and achieve better outcomes. It proves law triumphs over force and no nation can write and re-write rules to justify its expansionist agenda

In a ruling that will potentially have far-reaching implications, the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) decided overwhelmingly in favor of the Philippines in its landmark case against China over the latter’s expansive claims and aggressive behavior in the South China Sea.

Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague
Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague

The award unanimously rendered by the five-judge court in The Hague, Netherlands, on July 12 is undoubtedly a massive defeat for China and an enormous victory for the Philippines – not only legally but perhaps also politically and diplomatically.

Moreover, though it is binding only on the two parties to the case, namely China and the Philippines, the verdict greatly benefits other South China Sea claimant states like Vietnam.

In its long-waited verdict, which has attracted global media attention, the UN-backed court rejected China’s extensive claims in the South China Sea.

Chief among these is its conclusion “that there was no legal basis for China to claim historic rights to resources within the sea areas falling within the ‘nine-dash line’.” Such a verdict is a titanic defeat for Beijing.

China’s so-called line, which covers 85% of the South China Sea, is seen as the most controversial and ambiguous issue in the South China Sea disputes. It also lies at the core of the disputes between China and other South China Sea claimants.

Last October, when the PCA ruled that it had jurisdiction to hear the case, China vehemently dismissed the verdict, saying it would “lead to nothing.”

Prior to the tribunal’s final ruling, China strongly discredited the court’s authority, repeating that its ruling “amounts to nothing more than a piece of paper” and “makes no difference.”

However, by concluding that China’s claims and actions in the South China Sea had been illegal and aggressive, that “piece of paper” has already made a mammoth impact on the South China Sea disputes and stroked a devastating blow at Beijing.

For a rising power that has hugely invested to project itself as a peaceful and responsible player on the world stage, the verdict has greatly damaged China’s  reputation.

It also shows China’s political and diplomatic efforts to seek international support for its rejection of the arbitration case over the past few months have failed.

In the next days and months, as already indicated by its statement following the PCA’s award, China is likely to defy the court’s ruling.

However, if it adopts such a defiant posture, its regional and global prestige will be further dented because it will be seen as an international outlaw. That negative image will hang over them whenever Chinese leaders and officials go to regional and international meetings.

Thus, it is hoped that given the huge reputational cost it has to pay for its rejection of the verdict, which is legally binding, but unenforceable, China might eventually accept it and seek to adjust its South China Sea posture in conformity with the court’s ruling and UNCLOS in general. This is, in fact, the best outcome that not only the Philippines but also many other countries have hoped for.

Massive win for the Philippines

While it was widely believed that the court would rule in the Philippines’ favor, few thought that Manila would record such a resounding victory.

It is unclear how the government of President Rodrigo Duterte, who was elected in May, will respond to and use the tribunal’s ruling in the coming weeks or months. Yet, the award is hugely significant for the Philippines for many reasons.

One of these is that though it cannot compete with China militarily, it can turn to international law and arbitration to challenge the latter on equal terms and achieve better outcomes.

Making a statement on the first day of the hearings on July 7 2015, the Philippine’s then Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario, said his country turned to UNCLOS and the PCA because it believed in ‘the equalizing power of international law, [… ] which allows the weak to challenge the powerful on an equal footing, confident in the conviction that principles trump power; that law triumphs over force; and that right prevails over might.”

In his remarks at the conclusion of the hearings, Rosario firmly stated: “No State, no matter how powerful, should be allowed to claim an entire sea as its own and to use force or the threat of force in asserting that claim. No State should be permitted to write and re-write the rules in order to justify its expansionist agenda.”

Tuesday’s verdict confirms those convictions.

Judging by his recent moves and statements, President Duterte has adopted a more conciliatory approach to China than his predecessor, President Benigno Aquino III, whose government filed the case against China in 2013.

However, in its first reaction to the verdict, his government welcomed the court’s ruling and considered it as an “important contribution” to the South China Sea disputes.

In a statement released straight after the ruling, Manila said it “strongly affirms its respect for this milestone decision as an important contribution to ongoing disputes in the South China Sea.”

If this statement is any indication, the Philippine government will not dramatically shift the country’s China policy by dropping the case and accepting bilateral negotiations with China without any conditions as some have suggested. Instead, it will use the verdict as a means to negotiate or deal with Beijing because the PCA’s favorable ruling is hugely strengthening Manila’s position vis-à-vis the latter.

Whatever its rhetoric is or will be, China is under enormous pressure to make significant concessions and reach a negotiated settlement with the Philippines, which is more or less in conformity with the court’s judgment.

A victory for others too

The ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration – especially its rejection of China’s ‘nine-dash line’ – is also a milestone victory for other South China Sea claimant states and interested countries.

As the so-called ‘nine-dash line’ also overlaps with the Exclusive Economic Zone claims by Vietnam, Malaysia and even Indonesia, these countries will probably require China to bring its maritime claims into conformity with UNCLOS.

Vietnam, which right from the beginning asserted that it had “no doubt that the Tribunal has jurisdiction” over the arbitration case filed the Philippines, welcomed the court’s final ruling.

Following the verdict, Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Le Hai Binh said, “Vietnam strongly supports the resolution of disputes in the East Sea [Vietnamese name for the South China Sea] by peaceful means, including diplomatic and legal processes and refraining from the use or threat to use force in accordance with international law.”

As it is critical of China’s actions in the South China Sea, the Vietnamese public also reacted positively to the court’s verdict.

In fact, the PCA’s historic ruling would please all those who want – or advocate for – a rules-based maritime order in the South China Sea and a lawful and peaceful approach to international politics and conflicts in general because such an approach will promote stability and peace.

In contrast, as illustrated by many historical experiences and recent escalations in the South China Sea, applying raw and unsystematized power in the pursuit of one’s self-interest or hegemonic ambition that ignores international law and the legitimate rights of others will lead to instability and conflict.

Xuan Loc Doan is a research fellow at the Global Policy Institute. He completed a PhD in International Relations at Aston University, UK in 2013. His areas of interest and research include Vietnam’s domestic and foreign policy, ASEAN’s relations with major powers, and international politics in the Asia-Pacific region.

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Xuan Loc Doan

Dr Xuan Loc Doan researches and writes on a number of areas. These include the domestic and foreign policy of the UK, Vietnam and China, US-China relations and geopolitical issues in the Indo-Pacific region.

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