The Chinese government has ordered its propaganda outlets in high gear to denounce a decision against their territorial claims in the South China Sea by the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague, calling the case “null and void” because it does not support China’s claim to exclusive control of almost the entire sea.
“The award is null and void and has no binding force,” the Chinese Foreign Ministry said following the announcement of the verdict in Philippines vs. China, which found that China’s claims to the waters within the “nine-dash line,” a Chinese government term for the territory they claim. The waters in the “nine-dash line” include the exclusive territory of Brunei, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Indonesia, though Indonesia does not claim any land formations within the territory in question.
Echoing the Foreign Ministry, President Xi Jinping is quoted in state outlet Xinhua as asserting that “the South China Sea Islands have been China’s territory since ancient times” and that China’s activities in the region “will not be affected” by the case, which is binding under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). “China has always been a guardian of international rule of law and of fairness and justice, and will always adhere to the path of peaceful development,” the President allegedly said.
Xinhua has titled its coverage of the Hague case “The Farce Should Come to an End.”
In another statement, Beijing explicitly claims a number of land formations in the region, claims the Hague rejected: the Pratas Islands, the Paracel Islands, the Zhongsha Islands, and the Spratly Islands. The Spratly and Paracel Islands are both claimed by Vietnam and the Philippines in part.
The South China Morning Post notes that, despite the rhetoric, China appears to be abiding by the decision. “In a sign of early concessions, China has reportedly given Philippine fishermen access to the disputed Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea,” the newspaper reports. Instead, the Chinese government appears to be taking its wrath out on neighboring Vietnam; shortly before the verdict was issued, Chinese ships sank a Vietnamese fishing boat in the South China Sea, leaving its crew to float on the remains of their boat for hours before allowing a Vietnamese rescue crew to pass.
The Hague case found that China’s claims to all of these territories are invalid. “China’s claims to historic rights, or other sovereign rights or jurisdiction, with respect to the maritime areas of the South China Sea encompassed by the relevant part of the ‘nine-dash line’ are contrary to the Convention and without lawful effect to the extent that they exceed the geographic and substantive limits of China’s maritime entitlements under the Convention,” the judgment reads.
“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,” it continues.
The full text of the case, however, notes that UNCLOS can only be invoked in maritime territory, leaving the issue of the islands in the region still up for dispute: “this Tribunal has not been asked to, and does not purport to, make any ruling as to which State enjoys sovereignty over any land territory in the South China Sea, in particular with respect to the disputes concerning sovereignty over the Spratly Islands or Scarborough Shoal.” The artificial islands China created in the Spratly and Paracel region, however, do not traditionally count as land as per UNCLOS precedent.
The case forces China to cease “interfering with Philippine fishing and petroleum exploration” and “constructing artificial islands” in the contested waters.
Filipino nationals have begun celebrating the case, protesting before the Chinese embassy in Manila demanding that China leave the “nine-dash line” area permanently. The government, however, has been mostly quiet, issuing a statement calling for China to “exercise restraint and sobriety” and President Rodrigo Duterte calling an emergency cabinet meeting to discuss the implications of the verdict and how to move forward with China.
Duterte has been an advocate for dialogue with China, though as candidate he vowed to retake South China Sea territories personally by riding a jet ski to the region in question and planting a Filipino flag there.
Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay, Jr. issued a statement saying the government “welcomes” the decision.