07/12/2016, 15.13
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Tribunal rules that Beijing has no claim over disputed islands in South China Sea

The Permanent Court of Arbitration rules on a case brought by Philippines. According to the judges China has no claim over the disputed waters. The legal decision has great political significance, but Beijing does not feel bound by it. For the Philippines’ legal representative, the ruling was "clear and unanimous".

The Hague (AsiaNews) – An international tribunal has ruled against Chinese claims to rights in South China Sea, backing a case brought by the Philippines.

According to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, China has no claim to the South China Sea, and that building lighthouses and airstrips on atolls constitutes a violation of international law.

Although the decision is legally and politically relevant, it has no practical consequences. In fact, China has refused to accept the court’s jurisdiction, calling the ruling “ill-founded” and does not feel bound by it.

With Chinese actions in the disputed waters to boost its claim to 90 per cent of the sea deemed illegal, other countries in the region may be tempted to follow the Philippines and challenge China’s stance.

Beijing has never tried to settle the dispute multilaterally, preferring direct negotiations with single nations so as to assert its political, military and commercial power.

The tribunal in The Hague found that China had violated the Philippines' sovereign rights. It also found that China had caused "severe harm to the coral reef environment" by building artificial islands.

The ruling came from an arbitration tribunal under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which China signed in 1996. The latter allows countries to bring a case to their attention.

The ruling is binding but the tribunal, the Permanent Court of Arbitration, has no powers of enforcement.

Philippe Sands, a lawyer for the Philippines in the case, said it was a "clear and unanimous judgement that upholds the rule of law and the rights claimed by the Philippines". For him, it was a "definitive ruling on which all states can place reliance".

By contrast, the Chinese state news agency Xinhua said that "as the panel has no jurisdiction, its decision is naturally null and void".

Disputes over the area have dragged on for years. The Chinese government claims most of the South China Sea, including sovereignty over the disputed Spratly and Paracel Islands, in opposition to Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia.

Beijing has started to build artificial islands with military installations and lighthouses, and has sunk Vietnamese and Filipino ships and fishing boats, escalating tensions.

To counter Beijing’s militarisation of the South China Sea, the Philippines turned to the United Nations tribunal in 2014.

Beijing has refused to take part in the proceedings saying the tribunal has no jurisdiction in the matter. It argues that territorial disputes in the region should be settled by direct negotiations between the nations involved.

A few days ago Dai Bingguo, former State Councillor and top diplomat in Washington, claimed that the international court ruling on China’s claims in the South China is only a “piece of trash paper”.

US sources said that if China stick to its vow to ignore the unfavourable ruling, the United States could step up its patrols in the disputed waters to guarantee freedom of navigation.

Some analysts and experts believe the United States is concerned that China may respond by declaring an air defence identification zone in the South China Sea as it did in the East China Sea in 2013.

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