Why the Philippines’ South China Sea legal case matters


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A Philippine national flag flutters in the wind aboard the BRP Sierra Madre, run aground on the disputed Second Thomas Shoal, part of the Spratly Islands, in the South China Sea March 29, 2014. A Philippine national flag flutters in the wind aboard the BRP Sierra Madre, run aground on the disputed Second Thomas Shoal, part of the Spratly Islands, in the South China Sea March 29, 2014.


On July 12, a panel of five judges at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague will announce their ruling in a case brought by the Philippines against China over its actions in the South China Sea.
- The Philippines' case against China marks the first time any legal challenge has been bought in the South China Sea territorial dispute. Centered on the Spratlys archipelago which straddle vital international shipping lanes, tensions in the South China Sea have simmered for decades, intensifying in recent years. China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei claim the Spratlys and/or surrounding waters. China, Taiwan and Vietnam claim all of the Paracel Islands in the north of the South China Sea.
- The dispute has intensified political and military rivalry across the region between the rising power of China and the long-dominant player, the United States. China has been projecting its growing naval reach while the US is deepening ties with both traditional security allies, such as Japan and the Philippines, and newer friends, including Vietnam, Indonesia and Myanmar.
- Chinese analysts say the South China Sea will only grow in importance to Beijing, particularly as its submarine base on Hainan Island will be crucial to China's future nuclear deterrent.
- The Philippines formally lodged its arbitration case under the UN's 1982 Convention of the Law of the Sea, known as UNCLOS, in January 2013.
- China repeatedly warned the Philippines against pushing ahead with the case, and Beijing has refused to participate in any of its hearings, forgoing its right to appoint a judge. China says the court has no jurisdiction, and that its historic rights and sovereignty over the South China Sea predates UNCLOS.
- UNCLOS does not deal with sovereignty issues, but sets out what countries can claim from various geographic features at sea, as well maritime behavior. That regime allows for 12 nautical miles of territorial waters from islands and rocks and 200 nautical miles of Exclusive Economic Zone from islands that can sustain ordinary human habitation. An EEZ is not sovereign territory but gives a country the right to the fish and seabed resources, including oil and gas, within that zone.
- China and the Philippines are among the 167 parties that have signed and ratified UNCLOS. The United States has not, as the law has been blocked in the US Senate in the past. But its government recognises it as customary international law, including during naval patrols of the South China Sea.
- Manila's case is built around 15 points that seek to clarify its rights to exploit its EEZ. It challenges Chinese activities, including fishing, dredging and law enforcement patrols, as well as Beijing's reclamation and construction on seven reefs in the Spratlys. It also challenges China's effective control of the Scarborough Shoal, seeking a ruling that shows it sits entirely within the Philippines' EEZ.
- Any ruling on the legality of the nine-dash line, Beijing's controversial claim to much of the South China Sea, will be closely watched. Created in the late 1940s and used on official Chinese maps, the line bisects the EEZs of several other countries and reaches deep into the maritime heart of Southeast Asia.
- Manila's lawyers have also argued that none of islands, shoals and reefs across the Spratlys are significant enough to lay claim to an EEZ.
- While the findings are legally binding, UNCLOS has no enforcement body and legal experts say it remains unclear what can be done when China ignores the ruling. (Cases involving a ruling over actual sovereignty require mutual consent by states and are heard by the International Court of Justice in The Hague. ICJ rulings are enforceable by the United Nations Security Council.)
- Chinese officials have not ruled out future military action to enforce their claims, including construction on the Scarborough Shoal or the imposition of an air defence zone over the area. They have warned against further expansion of the US military presence in the area.
- US responses could include an increase in the frequency of so-called freedom of navigation operations and overflights in the region and increased defence aid to Southeast Asian countries, according to US officials speaking on the condition of anonymity.
- Other claimants, particularly Vietnam, are being closely watched to see whether they will launch their own action against China. Hanoi has sought legal opinions on a possible case, and its officials have yet to rule out such action.

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