The July 12 ruling clarified the law of the sea, but may further alienate China.
In particular, the tribunal ruled as follows:
- China cannot lawfully claim historic rights to resources within the nine-dash line.
- China (and others) cannot claim an EEZ from land features above high tide in the Spratlys, which were all judged to be “rocks” entitled only to a 12 nautical mile (nm) territorial sea.
- Mischief Reef was determined to be a low-tide elevation on the Philippines’ continental shelf. China’s construction of artificial installations on the reef violates the Philippines’ sovereign rights.
- The Spratly Islands as a group cannot generate any maritime zones as a unit. This appears to be an effort to pre-empt a Chinese claim to any maritime zones based on straight baselines that could be drawn around the Spratlys as a whole.
What does this mean? The only lawful claim to maritime zones that China can claim in the South China Sea would be a 12 nautical mile territorial sea from land features in the Spratly Island that are above high tide. China (and others) cannot claim an EEZ from any land feature in the Spratlys, as none were judged to be islands under UNCLOS warranting such a zone. China cannot claim any historic rights to resources, either, as the tribunal judged that China gave up those rights when it acceded to UNCLOS.
Finally, a few areas of the ruling favored China:
- Gaven/McKenna Reef was deemed to be a rock and not a low-tide elevation.
- The tribunal claimed no jurisdiction in the standoff over Second Thomas Shoal, as it concerned military activities exempted by Article 298.
- Traditional fishing rights for all states within the territorial sea of features in the Spratlys were apparently upheld, based on the finding that the Philippines had traditional fishing rights at Scarborough.
- The tribunal did not define what the nine-dash line might mean but only ruled on what it could not mean, namely, a claim to historic rights.
What does the ruling change? It does not increase the military strength of any Indo-Pacific country threatened by the party’s state expansionism. It will not increase the willingness of Indo-Pacific governments to join in collective security to resist further Chinese expansionism.
The ruling may, however, strengthen those forces in Beijing that argue that the present international system was created by the United States to serve the interests of the United States and therefore is a system that does not serve Chinese interests. China could become more chauvinist, militarist, and revisionist.