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Protesters outside of the Chinese Consulate before the Hague tribunal announced its ruling on the South China Sea dispute, Makati city, Philippines, July 12, 2016 (AP photo by Bullit Marquez).

Understanding Tribunal’s Rejection of Beijing’s South China Sea Claims

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

In a landmark ruling Tuesday, an international tribunal in The Hague rejected China’s extensive claims to sovereignty over the waters of the South China Sea, saying they had no legal basis. The tribunal also ruled that Beijing had violated the Philippines’ maritime rights with its construction of artificial islands. The Philippines brought the case to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in 2013 after China seized a reef over which both countries claimed sovereignty.

The five-member tribunal ruled that China’s historical claims to waters within the so-called nine-dash line, which covers most of the South China Sea, are invalid since they are incompatible with the exclusive economic zone rules set out by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, or UNCLOS, which both the Philippines and China have ratified. The tribunal also ruled that several reefs and rocks in the South China Sea that China has built into military outposts were too small for China to be granted territorial waters or an exclusive economic zone.

In a statement, the Chinese Foreign Ministry dismissed the ruling: “China’s territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests in the South China Sea shall under no circumstances be affected by those awards.” China refused to participate in the tribunal, arguing that the court doesn’t have jurisdiction. Beijing claims that because the sovereignty of the reefs and islands in the South China Sea is disputed, UNCLOS does not apply since it only covers maritime, and not land, disputes.

The Philippines and other neighboring countries with claims in the South China Sea, as well as the United States, welcomed the ruling. Philippine Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay told reporters, “The Philippines strongly affirms its respect for this milestone decision as an important contribution to ongoing efforts in addressing disputes in the South China Sea."

With Tuesday’s ruling, World Politics Review is making available essential background reading on the South China Sea disputes, free for non-subscribers.

Mira Rapp-Hooper explains China’s rights under UNCLOS and the legality of China’s island building in the South China Sea.

Aileen Baviera examines the Philippines diplomatic efforts to resolve its South China Sea disputes.

Gregory Poling looks at China’s unsuccessful efforts to diffuse tensions with its neighbors over the maritime disputes and why “Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea has steadily eroded regional goodwill.”

Timothy R. Heath writes about the growing competition between the U.S. and China in the South China Sea. “With neither China nor the United States in a position of decisive advantage, the contest for leadership and status remains one of stalemate for now.”

Carl Thayer discusses how China’s actions in the South China Sea are driving regional security cooperation, especially between Vietnam and the Philippines.

For more information, check out WPR's series on the South China Sea disputes.