Progress in the South China Sea?

A Year After the Hague Ruling

China Coast Guard vessels and Philippine fishing boats near Scarborough Shoal, April 2017. Erik De Castro / REUTERS

July 12 marked the one-year anniversary of a United Nations tribunal ruling in a case brought by the Philippines against China over the latter’s claims and activities in the South China Sea. The ruling was a major victory for the Philippines, particularly the tribunal’s decision on China’s “nine-dash line,” through which Beijing attempts to lay claim to vast areas of the South China Sea. A year to the day after the award, the Philippines issued a conciliatory statement even as an energy official announced that Manila would soon offer investors new oil and gas blocks at Reed Bank, off the Philippine coast but within the nine-dash line.

Beijing, for its part, has always made clear that it regards the tribunal's decision as “null and void” and of “no binding force.” Statements from Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) states in the wake of the decision were muted. None urged China to adhere to the ruling; the strongest merely called for respecting international law. 

Yet the impact of the decision cannot be determined by words alone. A year after the landmark award, ASEAN states appear to be more willing to assert their rights to resources in their exclusive economic zones (EEZs), and China’s behavior is now more in keeping with the tribunal’s decision.

Chinese structures in the Spratly Islands, April 2017. Erik De Castro / REUTERS


Some media reports and analysts have dismissed the decision as entirely ineffective. Territorial disputes in the South China Sea continue to fester and are likely to do so for a long time. China’s island-building, construction of facilities, and militarization of features in the area proceed unabated. The disagreement between China and the United States concerning rights concerning navigation, overflight, and military activities, manifested in U.S. freedom of navigation operations and China’s objections to them, likewise persists. 

But the tribunal was never meant to resolve those issues. It did not rule on who has a better claim to sovereignty over land features in the South China Sea—it had no jurisdiction to do

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