Any international lawyer looking at a news site in the last few hours will have seen that the final award has been handed down at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Philippines v China dispute brought under the UN Convention on the Law Sea Annex VII procedure. The arbitral tribunal’s decision is simply historic. While Philippines has lost on a number of smaller points, the scale of its win overall is much greater than most commentators were expecting.
What follows is a very preliminary comment – and I stress that faced with a 500 page decision I may well revise my views later. It is also more in the nature of an explainer than a deep dive on any of the many legal questions already highlighted below. (This is also an excessively long post, for which I apologise.) However, on a first, quite brief, examination the tribunal has attempted to be meticulously fair to China and has applied the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea strictly and thoroughly. It has delivered a result which was, by and large, predictable.
James Kraska of the US Naval College has summarised the key holdings as:
- the nine dash line has no basis in law,
- there are no islands in the disputed area within the meaning of Article 123, UNCLOS,
- China has interfered in the Philippines’ EEZ; and
- China’s actions have aggravated the dispute.
I would add to this list three matters. First, the Tribunal has concluded that Mischief Reef is a low tide elevation over which no State can claim sovereignty or possession. This means it is simply a maritime feature within the Philippines exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Chinese island-building activities there are thus not merely without legal effect but are in violation of the sovereign rights of the Philippines.
Second, it has found that China has breached various obligations under UNCLOS regarding the protection and preservation of the marine environment by having caused severe and irreparable harm to coral reef ecosystems in its construction of artificial islands in the South China Seas.
Third, international tribunals normally bend over backwards to avoid findings of bad faith against a state. That is, one cannot act in bad faith without violating some other substantive right. So most tribunals consider it sufficient to stop at determining that a right or duty has been violated. This tribunal has found China violated Article 300 of UNCLOS: the duty to act in good faith. This is an extraordinary rebuke and a clear indication that the law of the sea dispute resolution system will not be cowed by the posturing of the superpower. As a matter of principle, it takes a principled stand on the supremacy of the rule of law. As a matter of pragmatism, it flies in the face of the conventional wisdom that angering China over this dispute could jeopardise the stability of the law of the sea system.
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