The Big Picture: South China Sea AND Impact of Tribunal Verdict
The Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA), Hague, Netherlands gave the judgement that China cannot legally claim historic rights over the islands in the sea falling within the nine-dash line. The PCA said that China has violated sovereign rights of Philippines. This issue was raised by Philippines in 2013 at the Hague. However, China refused to take part in the proceedings as it has rejected tribunal’s jurisdiction and legitimacy from the beginning. The Court made it clear that it was not deciding on the territorial dispute and was only giving its decision on the matter whether China has historic rights on the sea or not and the sources for such maritime claims.
Reaction from China:
From the Chinese perspective the ruling has been more unfavourable than expected. But since china has rejected the verdict, it cannot be enforced as PCA does not have enforcement mechanism. China is a signatory to UNCLOS ( United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea – which defines the rights and responsibilities of nations with respect to their use of world’s oceans, establishing guidelines for businesses and managing marine natural resources) and also has accepted cannon fire shot distance (national rights of a country are limited to a specified belt of water extending from a nation’s coastlines generally 3 miles according to the cannon shot rule which is measured by how much distance fire can cover from its shore line). China has rejected the verdict on the grounds that it was not a part of rule making body when the rules were made. The Chinese have proposed that South China Sea is a territorial sea and hence implying freedom of navigation to be problematic although they took a stand that were not obstructing it. But India did face problems with INS AIRAVAT.
India has so far done a good job by not commenting on the tribunal’s verdict. India’s focus is still on the freedom of navigation and flight as lot of its trade passes through South China Sea. Therefore, solely depending on the goodwill of Chinese for transit does not seem to be an option for India.
If china is successful in establishing its hold over South China Sea, then it can further project its power towards Indian Ocean as well. Therefore, India cannot choose to be passive.
India has mentioned that there is need to observe international laws including UNCLOS and dispute settlement need bilateral talks and peaceful methods. It has been further clarified by the Defense Minister that it is a bilateral dispute and India is not a party to it. Therefore, India’s position is quite balanced and more definitive in this regard.
In a nutshell, although militarily strong, china cannot afford to bring to itself a reputational damage by challenging UNCLOS. This verdict is not only crucial for a few East Asian countries but also concerns the whole of Asia Pacific and geo political situation of the world as well.