International Law and the South China Sea Case

The views and opinions expressed on the website are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of Niagara Foundation, its staff, other authors, members, partners, or sponsors.

By Suzanne Warshell, Center for Public and Global Affairs Intern
July 14, 2015

Territorial disputes have plagued the South China Sea for the past sixty years, inciting episodes of heated conflict followed by periods of relative inaction. Various states in the region, including Brunei, China, Malaysia, Taiwan, the Philippines and Vietnam have claimed various territories or islands within the sea as their own, based on a wide variety of justifications. China’s claim to the South China Sea is founded on its nine-dash line principle, which it officially published beginning in 1947. China’s nine-dash line surrounds 90 percent of the South China Sea, claiming that it encapsulates the region that Chinese citizens have been using for centuries. As such, over the past decade China has been building islands and airstrips in the sea and reclaiming various islands and reefs in the disputed water. The Philippines’ claim is founded on principles established by the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Manila believes that some of the territories that China has claimed is under its sovereignty due to its proximity to its coastal borders. In January 2013, the Philippines launched an arbitration case against China regarding their actions in the South China Sea, alleging that China’s actions in the South China Sea have violated their sovereign claims.

The Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, also established by UNCLOS, recently held a hearing from July 7 – 13 on the question of whether it has jurisdiction to rule on the case. The Philippines has stated that this case is a test for the utility of international law itself. Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario stated that international legal pathways like the Permanent Court of Arbitration “that allow the weak to challenge the powerful on an equal footing, confident in the conviction that principles trump power; that law triumphs over force; and that right prevails over might.” Meanwhile, China has repeatedly refused to take part in the arbitration, claiming the court has no jurisdiction on issues of sovereignty. If the court rules in the upcoming weeks that the case is within its jurisdiction, and, therefore, can proceed, the Philippines will begin to present the most substantive elements of its argument. Regardless of the decision, however, China is legally entitled by UNCLOS to ignore any ruling that the court makes.

Still, whether or not the court decides if it even can discuss it with any sense of legitimacy will have immense implications for how the international arena deals with seemingly localized issues. If the court decides to rule on it, regardless of the impact – or lack thereof – that the ruling will have, it sends a message that international bodies can play some role in regional disputes. While the world will have to wait and see what the court rules, we can be sure that it will heavily demonstrate the role of international law in today’s global conflicts.

The views and opinions expressed on The Falls are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of Niagara Foundation, its staff, other authors, members, partners, or sponsors.