China's South China Sea claims unfounded, Hague rules

Judges at an arbitration tribunal in The Hague rejects China's claims to economic rights across large swathes of the South China Sea in a ruling that will be claimed as a victory by the Philippines.

Philippines welcomes 'milestone' decision over disputed waters

Protesters throws flowers while chanting anti-Chinese slogans during a rally by different activist groups over the South China Sea disputes, in Manila, Philippines on Tuesday. (Romeo Ranoco/Reuters)

An international tribunal ruled unanimously Tuesday that there is no legal basis for China's "nine-dash line" claiming rights to much of the South China Sea.

The panel of legal experts in The Hague said that any historic rights to resources that China may have had were wiped out if they are incompatible with exclusive economic zones established under a UN treaty.

The Philippines, the U.S. ally which brought the arbitration case against China, welcomed the ruling. Philippine Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay called it a "milestone decision" and pledged to pursue a peaceful resolution of its territorial disputes with China.

"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," he said.

Chinese state media said Beijing "does not accept or acknowledge" the tribunal or its ruling, while the U.S. urged all sides to avoid provocative statements or actions. 

"The decision today … is an important contribution to the shared goal of a peaceful resolution to disputes in the South China Sea," State Department spokesman John Kirby said in a statement.

He urged parties to comply with the legally binding ruling and avoid provocations.

Increasingly dangerous 

China's next move could chart the course of global power relations in an increasingly dangerous hotspot. It comes as the U.S. has ramped up its military presence in the region and could seek to marshal world opinion to pressure Beijing into complying with the verdict. A new Philippine leader who appears friendlier to Beijing could also influence the aftermath of the ruling.

China drafted its so-called nine-dash line to demarcate its claims to virtually the entire South China Sea. Manila brought the case because China's claims infringe upon its own 200-mile exclusive economic zone. The dispute centres on waters through which an estimated $5 trillion in global trade passes through each year and are home to rich fishing stocks and a potential wealth of oil, gas and other resources.

China, which boycotted the case, summoned its demobilized sailors and officers for training drills in exercises that apparently started just days ago.

The People's Liberation Army Daily newspaper said on social media late Monday that Chinese navy reserves have been called up to perform "functional tasks." The post followed online rumours that reservists in central Chinese provinces were called up for an unspecified mission from July 10-22.

A Chinese vessel launches an anti-ship missile during a military exercise in the waters near the Hainan Island and Paracel Islands in the South China Sea, on July 8. China's navy held a week of military drills around the disputed islands ahead of Tuesday's ruling. (Zha Chunming/Xinhua via Associated Press)

'China get out'

In the Philippines, more than 100 left-wing activists marched to the Chinese Consulate in metropolitan Manila, yelling, "Philippine territory is ours, China get out." They called their campaign to push China out of the South China Sea, "CHexit" or "China exit now."

Vietnam, meanwhile, accused Chinese vessels of sinking a Vietnamese fishing boat in disputed waters. Nguyen Thanh Hung, a local fisheries executive in the central province of Quang Ngai, said two Chinese vessels chased and sank the Vietnamese boat around midday Saturday as it was fishing near the Paracel islands. The five fishermen were rescued by another trawler around seven hours later.

China has insisted that bilateral talks between Beijing and other claimants is the only way to address the dispute.

Findings of the tribunal are binding on the parties, including China. But the court — without police or military forces or a system of sanctions at its disposal — can't enforce its ruling, so its potential impact remains unclear.

With files from Reuters