A international tribunal will hand down a landmark ruling on Tuesday in a case that will have major implications for one the world’s biggest geopolitical flashpoints — the South China Sea.
China has boycotted the hearings at the Permanent Court of Arbitration, saying it does not have jurisdiction to decide on the matter.
Why is it important?
The Philippines’ case against China marks the first time any legal challenge has been brought in the South China Sea territorial dispute.
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 United States is deepening ties with both traditional security allies such as Japan and the Philippines and with newer friends, including Vietnam and Myanmar.
Chinese analysts say the South China Sea will only grow in importance for Beijing, particularly as its submarine base on Hainan Island will be crucial to China’s future nuclear deterrent.
What does the case involve?
The Philippines formally lodged its arbitration case under the United Nations’ 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.
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.
What happens next?
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, of which China is a permenant member.)
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 U.S. military presence in the area.
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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