The fight in the South China Sea is far from over

WASHINGTON – This week Beijing is dealing with its loss in the South China Sea, after a five-judge Hague-based tribunal dismissed China’s “nine-dash line” territorial claim.

On Tuesday, the Permanent Court of Arbitration issued a 500-page unanimous ruling in Republic of Philippines v. People’s Republic of China, a case brought by the Philippines in 2013.

The court found that Beijing had violated the Philippines’ economic and sovereign rights and concluded there was no legal basis for China’s nine-dash line, which encompasses approximately 85% of the South China Sea.

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China’s “nine-dash line.”
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CSIS/David Choi/Business Insider

And while the ruling is only binding between Beijing and Manila, it does, however, set a legal foundation by determining that the rules of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNLCLOS) take precedence over China’s historic claims.

In short, if there is no “nine-dash line,” other territorial claimants in the South China Sea may be inspired to file lawsuits against China if Beijing refuses to compromise on access to the resource-rich waters.

Territorial claims from Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, the Philippines, Taiwan, and China make the South China Sea one of the most disputed places on the planet.

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Reuters/Amanda Macias/Business Insider

China, which claims the lion’s share of the region, has boycotted prior hearings. Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang told reporters ahead of the ruling, “We won’t accept any” of the court’s “so-called materials, no matter what they are.”

China’s Defense Ministry echoed in a statement, “No matter what kind of ruling is to be made, Chinese armed forces will firmly safeguard national sovereignty, security, and maritime interests and rights, firmly uphold regional peace and stability, and deal with all kinds of threats and challenges.”

Will the ruling encourage other states?

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A Vietnamese naval soldier stands guard at Thuyen Chai island in the Spratly archipelago, January 17, 2013.
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Quang Le/Reuters

On Tuesday, a panel of legal experts at the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ sixth annual South China Sea conference commented on the impact of the decision on other claimants.

“Because it’s invalid, will it encourage other states” to push back against China’s claims, Dr. James Kraska, professor of Oceans Law and Policy at the US Naval War College asked, referring to the nine-dash line. “I think so and I hope so,” he told Business Insider in a question-and-answer session.

“I think it’s too early for me to predict, but I think we do need to worry about that,” Julia Xue, International Law Program Academy senior fellow at Chatham House.

“It will have enormous impact on future jurisprudence and on the perceived legitimacy of other claims in the South China Sea and around the world,” said Gregory Poling, CSIS fellow and director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative.

“Vietnam must be very happy, Indonesia too, and perhaps Malaysia less obviously,” Jerome Cohen, adjunct senior fellow for Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, told Reuters.

“Vietnam and Indonesia can credibly threaten to launch their own arbitrations unless Beijing gives assurances of better behavior and shows a willingness to compromise,” he added.

Indonesia objects to China’s inclusion of waters around Natuna being included within its nine-dash line, but has sought to remain neutral in the dispute.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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