Judges at an arbitration tribunal in The Hague on Tuesday rejected China’s claims to economic rights across large swathes of the South China Sea in a ruling that will be claimed as a victory by the Philippines. Here is what the dispute was all about:
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What is the dispute about?
Approximately 3.5 million square km area of the South China Sea has been under dispute as China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei have all claimed sovereignty over this territory. This area of the sea is rich in oil and gas fields.
China has backed its territorial claim by building on these islands and running naval patrols near them. While the US says it is not taking any side in the argument, it has sent military ships and planes to the area, which has irked China.
Both China and the US have accused each other of “militarising” the South China Sea.
What does China say?
China claims the waters saying the area is within its “nine-dash line”, which extends hundreds of miles to the south and east of its island province of Hainan. Nine-dash lines are the dashes that demarcate virtually all of the South China Sea as Chinese territory, under the United Nation Convention on the Law of the Seas, or UNCLOS.
China has been taking what analysts say are “passive-aggressive” steps, which is to use fishing vessels and oil rigs to change the status quo on the ground and assert sovereignty over the area.
China has reiterated time and again that it has had rights to the territories for centuries, a claim that is contested by Vietnam and Taiwan.
The case of Philippines
China wants to negotiate directly with the Philippines and each of the four other claimants in an arrangement that would give it leverage for its sheer size and influence. Beijing has steadfastly opposed bringing the disputes to an international arena, which could provide the US a chance to intervene.
The Philippines asked a tribunal of five arbitrators to declare as invalid China’s vast claims using the “nine-dash line”. However, China and the Philippines are among more than 160 signatories of the 1982 convention, regarded as the constitution that governs and stipulates the rights of countries in using the world’s oceans.
Still, the Philippines asked the tribunal to classify whether a number of disputed areas could be called islands, low-tide coral outcrops or submerged banks. That’s so it can be determined whether China is indeed entitled to the stretch of territorial waters under the convention. It also wants China to be declared in violation of the convention for carrying out fishing and construction activities that breached the Philippines’ maritime rights. The convention does not deal with sovereignty questions, which the Philippine government says it did not raise.
With China’s claims, the Philippines stands to lose a huge chunk of off-shore territory, said Antonio Carpio, an associate Supreme Court justice who has made extensive studies on the conflicts, to Reuters. “This Chinese aggression is the gravest external threat to the Philippines since World War II,” he said.
What is India’s stand ?
India’s discomfort has increased sharply because New Delhi finds that what China is doing in the South China Sea is being replicated in spirit and tactics on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which goes through territory claimed by India. While India does not want to escalate tensions by challenging China on the South China Sea, it worries whether anybody will support India’s stand on CPEC.
China has declared via its state media outlets that India is sympathetic to China’s view, and its joint statement with India and Russia affirms it. Meanwhile, US Pacific Command chief, Admiral Harris indicated India and US may soon be sailing together for joint patrols, as part of a roadmap of the Strategic Vision document signed when Barack Obama visited India in 2015.
In recent days, reports said India and US were discussing working together to track submarines and on anti-submarine warfare, a move clearly aimed at China.
What are other countries saying about it?
Most countries have generally taken a position on the arbitration case depending on whether they’re aligned with the US or China.
The diplomatic tug-of-war has put smaller countries and regional blocs in a dilemma, including the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, whose four member states are claimants.
A Philippine push for the 10-nation bloc to issue a joint statement calling for China to respect Tuesday’s ruling has stalled with Cambodia and Laos backing the Chinese position. Besides the Philippines and Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore have also been wary of China.
The regional group has a bedrock principle of deciding by consensus, meaning just one member state can stall any group effort.