The Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, backed by the UN, essentially ruled that there is no legal basis for China to claim historic rights to vast sections of the South China Sea included in the ‘nine-dash line’.
Here it is, in full legalese: “China’s claims to historic rights, or other sovereign rights or jurisdiction, with respect to the maritime areas of the South China Sea encompassed by the relevant part of the ‘nine-dash line’ are contrary to the Convention and without lawful effect to the extent that they exceed the geographic and substantive limits of China’s maritime entitlements under the Convention.”
Well, nothing is black and white in such an immensely complex case. The Philippines were advised by a powerhouse Anglo-American legal team. China had “no agents or representatives appointed.”
Beijing argues that all the attention over the South China Sea revolves around conflicting sovereign claims over islands/rocks/reefs and related maritime delimitations - over which the court has no jurisdiction. Attributing territorial sovereignty over maritime features in the South China Sea goes beyond the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
Beijing does abide by Article 298 of UNCLOS – which excludes compulsory arbitration on maritime boundaries. This, by the head of the Chinese mission to the EU, Yang Yanyi, is a fair summary of the Chinese position. And in fact the court did not allocate any islands/rocks/reefs/outcrops to disputing nations; what it did was to point towards which maritime “features” are capable - under international law - of generating territorial rights over surrounding seas.
What transpired in The Hague certainly won’t solve the riddle, as argued here. Beijing had already made it very clear, even before the ruling, it would fiercely reject all findings.
Yet now the narrative is being calibrated; Beijing is open for talks, as long as Manila sets the ruling aside. Jay Batongbacal, from the University of the Philippines, cuts to the heart of the issue: “Publicly stating that junking the arbitration is a condition for resuming negotiations gives no room for face-saving on either side.”
And face-saving – the Asian way – must now be the name of the game. New Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte - a.k.a. 'The Punisher,' due to his stint as a crime-busting mayor of Davao City – does have an agenda, which is to improve his country’s appalling infrastructure. And guess where crucial investment would have to come from.
So Duterte’s domestic reform agenda points to economic cooperation, not confrontation, with China. He already gave – contradictory – signs he would be willing to visit Beijing and strike a deal. Undoubtedly, however, he would have a hard time convincing Beijing to stop military-related construction in the South China Sea, as well as not imposing an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ).