China and the South China Sea issue

Author (Corporate)
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Series Details September 2016
Publication Date September 2016
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On 12 July 2016, an Arbitral Tribunal, set up under the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), between the Republic of the Philippines and the People's Republic of China (PRC) published its award about conflicting maritime claims in the South China Sea, ruling overwhelmingly in favour of the Philippines. According to the legally binding ruling, China's 'nine-dash line' and 'historic claims' have no legal basis under UNCLOS. The tribunal found that China had violated the Philippines' rights with regard to fishing, oil exploitation, land reclamation and artificial island building, and had caused severe damage to the marine environment, including by using harmful fishing methods and harvesting endangered species.

The award's de facto impact on the long-standing conflicts over overlapping territorial and maritime claims between China and the Philippines, and its spill-over effect on those existing to varying degrees also between China and Brunei, Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam, is highly unpredictable. China opposed arbitration from the outset by not participating in it, and by stating that it will not accept the outcome. Since there is no enforcement mechanism for the award, China's response may vary between (partial, tacit) compliance, unchanged behaviour and escalation of conflicts. While Western democracies have welcomed the award, the EU has stopped short of calling for compliance with it. Only a handful of countries have criticised or rejected it.

Maintaining peace and (maritime) security in the South China Sea is likely to become more challenging given increasingly asymmetric power relations between China and adjacent south-east Asian countries, fierce competition over fishing grounds and oil and gas deposits in disputed areas, and growing Sino-US geo-strategic rivalry.

Author: Gisela Grieger

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Related Link(s)
ESO: Background information: Permanent Court of Arbitration: The Republic of the Philippines v. The People’s Republic of China. The South China Sea Arbitration
Royal Institute Elcano, Analysis of the Elcano Royal Institute, 5.11.15: China’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea
UK: Parliament: House of Commons: Library: Briefing Paper, No.8434 (07.11.18): The South and East China Sea disputes: recent developments

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