“Great Game” politics in the Asia-Pacific has just changed irrevocably, especially for all parties, claimants, and affected constituencies in the South China Sea, after the Annex VII UNCLOS arbitral tribunal released its 12 July 2016 Award in Republic of the Philippines v. People’s Republic of China (Permanent Court of Arbitration Case No. 2013-19). While we will be featuring posts over the coming days on this award that dissect and analyze the award, its international legal significance, and its larger geopolitical consequences for all claimants to the South China Sea dispute and third-party actors (such as the United States), for now, a close read of all 479 pages of this arbitral award reveals it to be an extremely rich and fertile piece of international jurisprudence, one that will certainly have far-ranging doctrinal impacts as an international judicial decision that is also an authoritative subsidiary means for determination of the international law rules under UNCLOS, especially on questions such as the:
1) normative weight of “historic rights” and differentiating the same from “historic title” and “historic rights short of sovereignty”, and clarifying what could still possibly amount to historic rights that States could still validly assert within the UNCLOS treaty regime;
2) authoritative criteria for determining the existence of low-tide elevations (LTEs), noting that the legal consequences of which were not completely settled in the International Court of Justice’s judgment in Qatar v. Bahrain;
3) objective criteria for the authoritative interpretation of Article 121 UNCLOS;
4) objective and subjective criteria for testing the lawfulness and unlawfulness of a coastal State’s asserted ‘enforcement’ activities; and the
5) objective or scientific factors that could be taken into account to determine the existence of actionable environmental damage to the marine environment under Articles 192 and 194 UNCLOS.
Interestingly, the arbitral tribunal did not assume jurisdiction in this case over the interpretation of “military activities” within the meaning of Article 298 of UNCLOS, which the Philippines had asserted in regard to various military and paramilitary incidents with China over Second Thomas Shoal. It would be interesting to see, in the coming days, how the United States reacts to this development, since it has frequently insisted on the prerogative of the coastal State to make the authoritative determination of what “military activities” could be justifiably excluded from compulsory dispute settlement under UNCLOS Article 298(1)(b).
The evidentiary rules and fact-finding procedures of this tribunal will also, I suspect, also provoke considerable commentary, if not critique, since the tribunal drew heavily from numerous statements, published views, and opinions that were attributed to the respondent in this case. One can also expect questions to be raised on why the respondent never chose to participate in the proceedings if only to challenge jurisdiction, to contest the veracity or authoritativeness of the Philippines’ technical, environmental, hydrographical, and other expert submissions under protest, or to otherwise set its own narrative, instead of permitting China’s narrative to be formed from the tribunal’s reconstruction of innumerable media statements and statements of officials.
Clearly, this award has greater consequences beyond China’s repeated refusal to recognize it (at least for now). As a subsidiary means for determining international law, it is conceivably difficult for any of the claimants – the Philippines included – to ignore the legal effect of this ruling and its impact on all future steps to be undertaken in the actual maritime boundary delimitation negotiations. The ruling will likely affect the landscape of interpretation for the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties to the South China Sea, and the ongoing work agenda of the ASEAN-China Working Group on the Code of Conduct for the Parties to the South China Sea. Whatever the stated preferences may be of China or the new Duterte administration in the Philippines, and regardless of objections to the veracity of factual findings of the tribunal, the very existence of the Philippines v. China arbitration award as a subsidiary means for determining the rules of international law arguably changes the very scope and interpretation of actual applicable law to be considered by parties to this dispute.
We look forward to featuring a broad spectrum of views from various international lawyers and scholars on this landmark arbitral award, as we track contemporaneous developments in the Asia-Pacific region, and invite further discussion especially on next steps ahead for the actual disputes between the claimants on maritime boundary delimitation.