The Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague, Netherlands, has ruled that China’s claims of historical rights over South China Sea (SCS) has no legal basis. The case against China was initiated by the Philippines. The PCA is not a court per se, but organises arbitration tribunals between member countries, should issues arise.
The SCS is a busy international waterway, one of the main arteries of global economy and trade. And China claims more than 85 percent of it. The Hague-based PCA ruled that China has no legal basis to claim historical rights to islands in the SCS, and has violated Philippines' sovereign rights. It said Beijing “had no historic rights to resources in the waters of the South China Sea” and that “such rights were extinguished to the extent they were incompatible with the exclusive economic zones provided for in the Convention.”
As reported in BBC, it ruled on seven of 15 points brought by the Philippines. Among the key findings were: fishermen from the Philippines and China both had fishing rights around the disputed Scarborough Shoal area, and China had interfered by restricting access; China had "destroyed evidence of the natural condition of features in the South China Sea" that formed part of the dispute; transient use of features above water did not constitute inhabitation - one of the key conditions for claiming land rights of 200 nautical miles, rather than the 12 miles granted for rocks visible at high tide.
Not only is the SCS is a busy international waterway with over $5 trillion of world trade ships passing through it every year, it is also resource-rich with numerous offshore oil and gas blocks. There are a few hundred small islands in the SCS, a part of the Pacific Ocean. The main ones are Spratly Islands, Paracel Islands, and Scarborough Shoal. China claims most of these islands as its own. Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines, and Taiwan have rival claims. China has said it will not permit other nations to infringe on what it considers its sovereign rights in the strategically vital area.
The historical background goes as such: China laid claim to the SCS back in 1947. It demarcated its claims with a U-shaped line made up of eleven dashes on a map, covering most of the area.
The Communist Party, which took over in 1949, removed the Gulf of Tonkin portion in 1953, erasing two of the dashes to make it a nine-dash line. The “nine-dash line” stretches hundreds of kilometers south and east of its southerly Hainan Island, covering the strategic Paracel and Spratly island chains. China buttresses its claims by citing 2,000 years of history when the two island chains were regarded as its integral parts. But Vietnam rejects the Chinese argument, justifying its own claims, on the basis of written records, which, in its view, establishes its administration over the area since the 17th century. Beijing and Manila clash on account of their dispute over the jurisdiction of the Scarborough shoal, which is 160 kilometres from the Philippines.
Although the SCS islands are claimed by many countries, this ruling was about the Philippines alone. This is owing to the dispute Philippines raised with China to the PCA, saying China’s claims violated Philippines’ sovereignty under the 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea. A five-member panel of international legal experts was appointed in June 2013 to hear the case. The result of this arbitration was announced on July 12, 2016, with the panel saying China had no “historic rights” over the SCS.
Since the PCA is an intergovernmental organisation and not a court per se, the ruling is not binding. China called the ruling "ill-founded" and says it will not be bound by it. “China opposes and will never accept any claim or action based on those awards,” a Chinese Foreign Ministry statement read.
India follows the policy of not involving in disputes between sovereign nations. But India, too, has commercial interest in the region. Vietnam has offered India seven oil blocks in its territory of SCS, a move that didn’t get down well with China. India has also signed energy deals with Brunei.