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It was a victory for the Philippines in its fight to uphold its sovereignty over certain maritime features and the resources within the disputed areas in the West Philippine Sea.
The Permanent Court of Arbitration on Tuesday concluded that there was no legal basis for China to claim historic rights to resources within the sea areas falling within the “nine-dash line.”
The line, which stretches down the Vietnam coastline to the top of Malaysia before heading north alongside the Philippines, remains the basis for China’s historical claims to the sea.
In its landmark decision, the Hague-based Tribunal constituted under Annex VII to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas in the arbitration instituted by the Philippines against China concluded that the historic rights espoused by China to the resources in the waters of the South China Sea were extinguished to the extent they were incompatible with the exclusive economic zones provided for in the UNCLOS.
In the said Award, the Tribunal considered whether certain reefs claimed by China are above water at high tide, or whether any of these features could generate maritime zones beyond 12 nautical miles.
In reaching its findings, the Tribunal noted that UNCLOS classifies land features only on their natural condition and that islands generate an exclusive economic zone of 200 nautical miles and a continental shelf, but “rocks which cannot sustain human habitation or economic life of their own shall have no exclusive economic zone or continental shelf.”
Having considered these provisions, the Tribunal concluded that since the reefs claimed by China have been heavily modified by land reclamation and construction these cannot be considered as land features and therefore cannot generate an exclusive economic zone. Likewise, it pointed out that transient use does not constitute inhabitation by a stable community and that all of the historical economic activity in the disputed islands had been extractive.
Having found that none of the features claimed by China was capable of generating an EEZ the PCA concluded that it could—without delimiting a boundary—declare that certain sea areas are within the EEZ of the Philippines, because those areas are not overlapped by any possible entitlement of China.
And since they have found that these certain areas are within the EEZ of the Philippines, the Tribunal found that Beijing had violated Manila’s sovereign rights in its EEZ by interfering with Philippine fishing and petroleum exploration, constructing artificial islands and failing to prevent Chinese fishermen from fishing in the zone.
The PCA also held that fishermen from the Philippines, like those from China, had traditional fishing rights at Scarborough Shoal and that China had interfered with these rights in restricting access. It further held that Chinese law enforcement vessels had “unlawfully created a serious risk of collision when they physically obstructed Philippine vessels.”
The Tribunal pointed out that, although Chinese navigators and fishermen, as well as those of other countries in the region, had historically made use of the islands in the South China Sea, there was no evidence that China had historically exercised exclusive control over the waters or their resources.
In this particular aspect of the case, the Tribunal found historical evidence to be more relevant.
Furthermore, the Tribunal found that China’s recent large-scale land reclamation and construction of artificial islands at seven features in the disputed areas in the South China Sea also claimed by the Philippines have caused “severe harm to the coral reef environment.”
It also concluded that China has violated its obligation to preserve and protect fragile ecosystems and the habitat of depleted, threatened, or endangered species considering the fact that Chinese authorities were aware that Chinese fishermen have harvested endangered sea turtles, coral, and giant clams on a substantial scale in the South China Sea “using methods that inflict severe damage on the coral reef environment.
The PCA said China clearly failed to fulfill its obligations to stop such activities.
On the other hand, the Tribunal found that it lacked jurisdiction to consider the implications of a stand-off between Philippine marines and Chinese naval and law enforcement vessels at Second Thomas Shoal, holding that this dispute involved military activities and was therefore excluded from compulsory settlement.
However, the Tribunal concluded that China’s recent large-scale land reclamation and construction of artificial islands was incompatible with the obligations on a State during dispute resolution proceedings, insofar as China has inflicted irreparable harm to the marine environment, built a large artificial island in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, and destroyed evidence of the natural condition of features in the South China Sea that formed part of the Parties’ dispute.
China “does not accept and does not recognize” the ruling by a UN-backed tribunal on its dispute with the Philippines over the South China Sea, the official Xinhua news agency said Tuesday.
The comments, in a brief dispatch that did not identify a source, follow a ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague that China has no historic rights to its claimed “nine-dash line”. (With reports from AFP)