The Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague Tuesday issued a unanimous, provocative, and over-reaching decision in the South China Sea arbitration case filed by the previous government of the Philippines. The Tribunal ruled against China on all major points, surprising even backers of the initial Philippine filing. This is the ruling which Obama and crew have claimed for months that China must obey or the US will “enforce” by military means, whether any of the South China Sea nations wish it or not.
The Court acknowledged that it has no mandate to rule on sovereignty over land territory and does not delimit any boundary between the Parties, but then proceeded to de facto rule on sovereignty. The Tribunal “concluded that there was no legal basis for China to claim historic rights within the sea areas falling within the ‘nine-dash line’,” which China has historically considered its sovereign territory. So, too, the Tribunal ruled that “it could—without delimiting a boundary— 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.” This ruling rested on the incredible finding that the 110 acre Taiping Island, occupied by Taiwan and housing a military garrison, a hospital, and a farm, is not an island at all, but just a rock, and therefore is not granted the 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone due any island. That 200-mile zone overlaps the other Spratly islands and reefs. Thus the magic of the “impartial Court.”
China never recognized the Arbitration Court’s right to even take up the case, and Tuesday the Chinese Foreign Ministry reiterated what the government has been stating for months: China “solemnly declares that the award is null and void and has no binding force. China neither accepts nor recognizes it.”
President Rodrigo Duterte’s government in the Philippines, which has put forward, since it was sworn in at the end of June, a policy of resolving disputes with China on the basis of dialogue on mutual economic development, responded to the ruling with caution. Presidential Communications Secretary Martin Andanar stated that the Solicitor General would study the decision and provide the President with “a complete and thorough interpretation in five days,” and Presidential spokesperson Ernesto Abella specified that no public statements would be issued until the matter had been thoroughly discussed.
The Wall Street Journal quickly published a perspective for how the ruling can be used to overturn Duterte’s policy of working with China, and line up all of Southeast Asia against China. Citing “experts,” Wall Street’s rag asserted that Duterte can’t appear weak in defending Philippine sovereignty now that the Court has ruled (especially that the ruling gave the Philippines sovereignty over one of the artificial islands built up by China), and so will have to bow to the alleged “overwhelming public opinion” against China in the country.
The U.S. lawyer who represented the previous Philippine government’s filing at the Hague, Paul Reichler, of the U.S. law firm Foley Hoag LLP, told journalists after the ruling that it would encourage other countries in the region to stand up to China. As reported in the Journal, Reichler insists “the Tribunal’s ruling not only benefits the Philippines, it also benefits other states bordering the South China Sea like Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam. If China’s nine-dash line is invalid as to the Philippines, it is equally invalid to those states and, indeed, the rest of the international community.”