Tribunal rejects China's expansive South China Sea claims

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

THE HAGUE, Netherlands -- An international tribunal rejected China's extensive claims in the South China Sea in a landmark ruling Tuesday that also found the country had aggravated the seething regional dispute and violated the Philippines' maritime rights by building up artificial islands that destroyed coral reefs and by disrupting fishing and oil exploration.

While the decision is seen as a major legal declaration regarding one of the world's most contested regions, China immediately rejected it as a "farce" and the true impact is uncertain given the tribunal has no power of enforcement.

While the findings cannot reverse China's actions, it still constitutes a rebuke, carrying with it the force of the international community's opinion. It also gives heart to small countries in Asia that have helplessly chafed at China's expansionism, backed by its military and economic power.

"The Philippines strongly affirms its respect for this milestone decision as an important contribution to ongoing efforts in addressing disputes in the South China Sea," Philippine Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay said in Manila, calling on "all those concerned to exercise restraint and sobriety."

Former foreign secretary Albert del Rosario, who helped oversee the filing of the case, said the ruling underscored "our collective belief that right is might and that international law is the great equalizer among states."

Del Rosario stressed it was important for the ruling to be accepted by all.

"For the sake of maintaining international order, it is imperative that the Award and clarification of maritime entitlements be accepted by all relevant countries -- without exception -- so that we can work together on how remaining issues can be peacefully resolved," he said.

Six regional governments have overlapping territorial claims in the South China Sea, waters that are rich in fishing stocks and potential energy resources and where an estimated $5 trillion in global trade passes each year.

The disputes also have increased friction between China and the United States, which has ramped up its military presence in the region as China has expanded its navy's reach farther offshore.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest reacted to the ruling by encouraging all parties to "acknowledge the final and binding nature of this tribunal."

Earnest spoke to reporters aboard Air Force One as President Barack Obama was flying to Dallas. He said the United States was not a claimant in the case and it seeks a peaceful resolution to disputes and competing claims in the region, while preserving the U.S.'s ability engage in the freedom of navigation and commerce.

Earnest said the White House sees the potential the tribunal's ruling could aid in the resolution of the dispute in a way that doesn't further inflame the situation. He also urged the parties not to use the ruling as an opportunity to engage in escalatory or provocative actions.

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