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China Just Lost a Major Case Over Its South China Sea Claim

Rallies In Manila Over The South China Sea DisputeRallies In Manila Over The South China Sea Dispute
Anti-China protestors mount a protest against China's territorial claims near the Chinese Consulate Tuesday in Makati, Philippines. Dondi Tawatao Getty Images

China’s expansive claims in the South China Sea will come under fire after an international tribunal today at the Hague ruled against its territorial borders.

The case was brought by the Philippines three years ago to protest China’s claims of historic rights according to a “nine-dash line” that extends for nearly the entire South China Sea in waters that border 10 countries.

“The Tribunal concluded that there was no legal basis for China to claim historic rights to resources within the sea areas falling within the ‘nine-dash line,’ the Tribunal wrote today.

The South China Sea is an important gateway to world trade, and as a shipping channel handles $5 trillion a year.

The Sea, which is also home to oil and gas reserves, borders Brunei, Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand, and Vietnam. Nearly all have contested China’s territorial claims.


After the ruling, China is unlikely to change its policies in the region. China has spent the past two years building military operations on a reef called Fiery Cross in the Spratly Islands, about 500 miles from Chinese shores. And it spent the lead-up to the Hague’s ruling saying it didn’t respect the tribunal.

A front-page editorial yesterday in the Communist Party’s chief mouthpiece The People’s Daily, called the case a foreign plot against China, which it labeled the real victim. For the past few weeks, voices in state media and diplomatic circles in China have preemptively lashed out at the ruling as groundless—despite the fact that the Philippines lodged its case against China under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea in the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague.

On Tuesday there was increased police presence outside of the Philippines Embassy in Beijing, with bored young men milling around the area. Their age and dress fit the profile of men who are often either plain clothes police or thugs hired to cause trouble.

The government also apparently cancelled opportunities for the press to question Chinese officials about the ruling.

And blocked the arbiter’s site in China.


Before the ruling was announced, close watchers of Chinese politics like Cornell University Professor Allen Carlson suggested a win for The Philippines could set in motion similar cases from Vietnam and others.

The ruling also strengthens the U.S.’s hand in conducting what amount to military drive-bys in the region to support its allies; the U.S. has conducted three “freedom of navigation” exercises in the disputed waters since Oct. 2015.

The ruling did little for China’s cause, and the state press couldn’t hide its distaste for the verdict.