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Hague rejects Beijing’s claims in S China Sea

BEIJING — An international tribunal in The Hague delivered a sweeping rebuke yesterday of China’s behaviour in the South China Sea, from the construction of artificial islands to interference with fishing, and ruled that its expansive claim to sovereignty over the waters had no legal basis.

BEIJING — An international tribunal in The Hague delivered a sweeping rebuke yesterday of China’s behaviour in the South China Sea, from the construction of artificial islands to interference with fishing, and ruled that its expansive claim to sovereignty over the waters had no legal basis.

The tribunal also said that Beijing had violated international law by causing “severe harm to the coral reef environment” and by failing to prevent Chinese fishermen from harvesting endangered sea turtles and other species “on a substantial scale”.

China’s actions in the disputed waters aggravated the regional dispute, the Permanent Court of Arbitration added.

China, which boycotted the tribunal hearings, vowed again to ignore the ruling and said its armed forces would defend its sovereignty and maritime interests.

China’s state-run Xinhua news agency said shortly before the ruling was announced that a Chinese civilian aircraft successfully carried out calibration tests on two new airports in the disputed Spratly Islands.

And China’s Defence Ministry announced that a new guided missile destroyer was formally commissioned at a naval base on the southern island province of Hainan, which has responsibility for the South China Sea.

The landmark case, brought by the Philippines in 2013, was seen as an important crossroads in China’s rise as a global power.

It is the first time the Chinese government has been summoned before the international justice system, and neighbouring countries have hoped that the outcome will provide a model for negotiating with Beijing or for challenging its assertive tactics in the region.

South-east Asian countries with claims in the South China Sea, including Vietnam, welcomed the ruling.

“Vietnam strongly supports the resolution of the disputes in the South China Sea by peaceful means, including diplomatic and legal processes and refraining from the use or threats to use force, in accordance with international law,” its foreign ministry spokesman Le Hai Binh said in a statement.

In Washington, the State Department said the ruling was an “important contribution” to resolving regional disputes and should be seen as “final and legally binding”, even though the United States itself has not ratified the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos).

State Department spokesman John Kirby also urged all claimants in the South China Sea to avoid provocative statements or actions.

In a tweet, the Association of South-east Asian Nations said it is committed to respecting the universally recognised principles of international law, including Unclos.

Taiwan, another claimant, rejected the ruling, saying it “had seriously impaired” Taiwan’s territorial rights. It also announced that it will deploy another navy coast guard ship to patrol Itu Aba — an island it controls in the disputed waters — in addition to a 2,000-tonne vessel deployed on Sunday.

The key issue before the tribunal was the legality of China’s claim to waters within a “nine-dash line” that appears on official Chinese maps and encircles as much as 90 per cent of the South China Sea. Beijing cites historical evidence to support the claim.

But the tribunal sided with the Philippines, which had asked the judges to find the nine-dash claim to be in violation of Unclos. The treaty details rules for drawing zones of control over the world’s oceans based on distances to coastlines.

The tribunal said that while China and other countries have historically used the islands in the sea, Beijing had never exercised exclusive authority over the waters.

Thus, there was “no legal basis for China to claim historic rights to resources” in the waters within the nine-dash line.

It said China had interfered with traditional Philippine fishing rights at Scarborough Shoal, one of the hundreds of reefs and shoals dotting the sea, and had breached the Philippines’ sovereign rights by prospecting for oil and gas near the Reed Bank, another feature in the region.

None of China’s reefs and holdings in the Spratly Islands entitled it to a 200-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ), it ruled.

China’s Foreign Ministry comprehensively rejected the ruling, saying its people had more than 2,000 years of history in the South China Sea, that its islands did have exclusive economic zones and that it had announced to the world its “dotted-line” map in 1948.

“China’s territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests in the South China Sea shall, under no circumstances, be affected by those awards. China opposes and will never accept any claim or action based on those awards,” it said.

However, the ministry also repeated that China respected and upheld freedom of navigation and overflight, and that China was ready to keep resolving the disputes peacefully through talks with states directly concerned.

China’s Defence Ministry said shortly before the ruling was made public that the armed forces would “firmly safeguard national sovereignty, security and maritime interests and rights, firmly uphold regional peace and stability, and deal with all kinds of threats and challenges”.

The Philippines welcomed the ruling, but Manila’s response was muted.

“Our experts are studying the award with the care and thoroughness that this significant arbitral outcome deserves,” Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay told a news conference, reading from a prepared statement.

“We call on all those concerned to exercise restraint and sobriety. The Philippines strongly affirms its respect for this milestone decision as an important contribution to the ongoing efforts in addressing disputes in the South China Sea.”

The court has no power of enforcement, but a victory for the Philippines could spur Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei to file similar cases.

The new President of the Philippines, Mr Rodrigo Duterte, has signalled that he would be more accommodating towards China than his predecessor, Mr Benigno Aquino, and he was reported to have met last week with the Chinese ambassador in Manila, Mr Zhao Jianhua.

Dr Malcolm Cook, a senior fellow at the Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute, said the fact that the ruling supports the large majority of the claims made by the Philippines in the case filed by the Aquino administration means it will be hard for the new president to agree to any negotiations with China that are not on the basis of the ruling.

“The ruling likely limits the Duterte administration’s options when it comes to dealing with its maritime rights disputes with China,” he said, adding that joint development of resources for instance would now be off the table.

In the short term, the decision was likely to escalate the “war of words” but would not immediately change the geopolitical dynamics in the sea, said Ms Yanmei Xie, China analyst for the International Crisis Group, adding that the ruling was “as unfavourable to China as it can be”.

“We’re going to see a continuation of the chest thumping we’ve seen, especially from the China side.” agencies

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