South China Sea verdict comment
The unanimous decision of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague on the China-Philippines territorial dispute is final and legally binding on parties to the dispute under the provisions of the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. China expectedly has rejected the decision and says that India is on the same page, quoting a ‘common position’ statement signed by External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj at the Russia-India-China conference in Moscow in April, even though New Delhi has made it clear that the verdict must be given utmost respect.
It may be recalled the government of India accepted the court’s ruling against it brought by Bangladesh over a dispute in the Bay of Bengal in 2014. Reaffirming its claim of territorial sovereignty and maritime rights over almost all of the South China Sea, particularly the disputed Spratly Islands, China says its claim is rooted in history.
China is not alone in rejecting the court’s ruling. Taiwan also found it completely unacceptable, based on claims made by Chiang Kai-shek when he ruled China before fleeing to Taiwan in 1949. Taiwan controls a large part of the Spratly Islands. The court held that claims consistent with UNCLOS only were valid. The five-judge tribunal dismissed China’s “Nine-dash Line” claim which covers about 85 percent of the South China Sea, saying it was unlawful under UNCLOS which it ratified in 1996. China demarcated its South China Sea in 1947 with a U-shaped line made up of 11 dashes on a map covering most of the area. The Communist Party which took over in 1949 removed the Gulf of Tonkin in 1953 by erasing two of the dashes to make it the nine-dash line.
When Philippines lodged the suit against China in 2013, Beijing refused to take part in proceedings saying it “will not accept, recognize or execute” the verdict.
The court has no enforcement powers, but a majority of international arbitration awards have been executed. The verdict says, “China had violated the Philippines’ sovereign rights in the exclusive economic zone by interfering with Philippine fishing and petroleum exploration, by constructing artificial islands and failing to prevent Chinese fishermen from fishing in the zone.” It further ruled that the disputed Spratly Islands could not generate maritime zones collectively as claimed by China.
Apart from the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam ring the South China Sea waters, believed to hold untapped oil and gas reserves. Big powers seldom submit to international courts, even in cases involving genocide by armed forces, which explains why none of the affected countries barring the Philippines openly welcomed the verdict or directly called on China to abide by it. They considered it prudent not to provoke China. New Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte vowed not to “taunt or flaunt” the PAC ruling. The way forward is the dual track proposal of the 10-member Asean grouping of Southeast Asian countries. Any dispute in the South China Sea should be resolved by the parties concerned directly.
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