Southeast Asian nations called for a peaceful resolution to the South China Sea dispute following a U.N. tribunal decision rejecting China’s vast claims over the strategic and resource-rich waters.
In delivering its ruling Tuesday on a suit brought by the Philippines in 2013, the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PAC) in The Hague unanimously dismissed Chinese claims delineated by a nine-dash line on a 1940s-era Chinese map.
“[T]he Tribunal concluded that … there was no legal basis for China to claim historic rights to resources, in excess of the rights provided for by the Convention, within the sea areas falling within the ‘nine-dash line’,” a press release by the PAC stated Tuesday.
The court ruled that China had violated the Philippines’ sovereign rights by interfering with fishing and oil exploration, constructing artificial islands and failing to prevent Chinese boats from fishing in exclusive economic zones (EEZs) extending 200 nautical miles from shorelines, as established under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
It also took China to task for physically obstructing Philippine boats within those zones and causing “severe harm” to fragile ecosystems through its reclamation and construction projects.
In Manila, the new government of President Rodrigo Duterte reacted in measured tones.
“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,” Foreign Minister Perfecto Yasay said Tuesday in Manila.
“The Philippines reiterates its abiding commitment to efforts to pursue the peaceful resolution and management of disputes with a view to promoting and enhancing peace and stability in the region,” he added.
China, which refused to participate in the tribunal proceedings, said it would ignore the “unjust and unlawful” ruling, which is legally binding under international law but has no enforcement mechanism.
“China’s territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests in the South China Sea shall under no circumstances be affected by those awards. China opposes and will never accept any claim or action based on those awards,” it said in a statement.
Drawn into the fray
The ruling has implications for several small countries in the region which have helplessly witnessed China’s expansion into areas such as the Spratly Islands, which are claimed by Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei and Taiwan as well as the Philippines and China.
“Malaysia believes that all relevant parties can peacefully resolve disputes by full respect for diplomatic and legal processes; and relevant international law and 1982 UNCLOS,” its Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement.
“Malaysia believes that it is important to maintain peace, security and stability through the exercise of self-restraint in the conduct of activities that may further complicate disputes or escalate tension, and avoid the threat or use of force in the South China Sea,” it said.
Indonesia, for its part, has maintained a neutral stance for years on the simmering territorial disputes but has been drawn closer to the fray in recent months following repeated incursions by Chinese fishermen near the Natuna islands.
In late June, Indonesian navy ships fired warning shots as they chased 12 foreign fishing boats from the area, northwest of southern Borneo. A Chinese-flagged boat was captured and its seven-member crew detained, leading China to lodge a protest, according to reports.
“Indonesia once again calls on all parties to exercise self-restraint and to refrain from any actions that could escalate tensions, as well as to protect Southeast Asia region particularly from any military activity that could pose a threat to peace and stability, and to respect international law including UNCLOS,” the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement.
Melda Kamil Ariadno, an expert of international law at the University of Indonesia, said the ruling could set the stage for instability if China does not respect it.
“China has rejected it, the country has the right to do so, and will defend its views with any possible way. This can lead to a potential conflict. The region will not be safe anymore,” Melda told BenarNews on Tuesday.
As the largest country within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Indonesia should push the regional bloc to take a role in resolving such problems.
“Indonesia is the largest country in ASEAN, and what’s more it has a stake in the matter because Natuna waters are frequently infringed, so it should be more active and daring,” she said.
Mohd Azizuddin Mohd Sani, an international relations analyst at Universiti Utara Malaysia, said Tuesday’s ruling could have little impact since there is no enforcement mechanism.
“So the Philippines would not be able to do anything and China knows the decision will not affect the country in any way,” he said.
Tia Asmara in Jakarta, Hata Wahari and Melati Amalina in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this report.