A Feast to commemorate the 4th anniversary of the PCA South China Sea Ruling

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PCADifferent from the last three years, this year is marked with the high-profile 4thanniversary of the PCA South China Sea Ruling. Various events to praise the rule of law in the South China Sea took place.

1. The ‘feast’ begins with a message from the Philippines Foreign Secretary on July 12th 2020. July 12th was the exact day four years ago when The Hague Tribunal issued a ruling rejecting China’s sovereignty claims over most of the South China Sea.

In his message, Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. stated that the PCA South China Sea Ruling 2016 was “non-negotiable”, and called for China’s serious compliance with the ruling. Mr Locsin also underscored that the ruling “conclusively settled the issue of historic rights and maritime entitlements in the South China Sea… under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea 1982 (UNCLOS)”.

By adducing China’s acts in violation of international law cited by the Tribunal, including massive reclamation and construction of artificial features in the South China Sea with severe environmental impacts, Mr Locsin stressed the Tribunal’s conclusion that certain actions of China within the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) violated the Philippines’ sovereign rights and “were thus unlawful”.

“Compliance in good faith with the ruling would be consistent with obligations of the Philippines and China under international law”, Mr Locsin said. He also emphasized that the Philippines “commemorated the issuance of the ruling as a celebration of the rule of law as a means to settle disputes… and clearly mark out who would be in the wrong to insist on claims contrary to the ruling".

Observers believe that Mr Locsin's statement is the strongest one that the Philippines has ever made to celebrate this significant milestone. After four years under President Duterte Administration, the Philippines has barely mentioned the ruling to harness economic cooperation and investment from China. However, the outcome fell far short of the Philippines' expectation as China only gave empty promises. Beijing increasingly intimidated the Philippines and violated the Philippines’ sovereignty and other maritime interests. Only by upholding international law, including UNCLOS and the Tribunal ruling dated July 12th 2016, could the Philippines defend its sovereignty and interests. For this reason, the Philippines made more forceful statements to exalt the value of the Tribunal ruling on its 4th-anniversary this year.

2. On July 13th 2020, the US Department of State officially published the US’ position on maritime claims in the South China Sea via a Statement delivered by the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. The US has frequently declared that China's maritime claims in the South China Sea are unlawful. However, this was the first time that Washington has ever officially rejected these claims in such detail:

As Beijing has failed to put forth a lawful, coherent maritime claim in the South China Sea, the United States rejects any PRC claim to waters beyond a 12-nautical mile territorial sea derived from islands it claims in the Spratly Islands (without prejudice to other states’ sovereignty claims over such islands). As such, the United States rejects any PRC maritime claim in the waters surrounding Vanguard Bank (off Vietnam), Luconia Shoals (off Malaysia), waters in Brunei’s EEZ, and Natuna Besar (off Indonesia). Any PRC action to harass other states’ fishing or hydrocarbon development in these waters – or to carry out such activities unilaterally – is unlawful”.

The US new position is consistent with UNCLOS 1982 and the PCA ruling dated July 12th 2016. The position is also in line with the Letter of the US Mission to the UN early this June and another Note Verbale to China on December 28th 2016, after The Hague Tribunal issued its ruling.

The US explicit rejection of “any PRC maritime claim in the waters surrounding Vanguard Bank, Luconia Shoals, waters in Brunei’s EEZ and Natuna Besar, is new and noteworthy. These waters are within China’s “nine-dash line” claim rejected by the Tribunal in 2016 and, nonetheless, were not explicitly mentioned in the Tribunal ruling. The US specified these four areas in its statement this time.

Since 2019, these waters have become regional hotspots due to coercive activities of Chinese warships, coast guard ships, survey ships, maritime militia vessels and fishing boats. The US’ rejection of China’s claims over these waters refuted China’s arguments that the abovementioned waters were within disputed spaces. The US’ new position has directly attacked China’s ploy to turn undisputed water into disputed spaces.

Although the US did not clarify its position on territorial disputes (disputes about sovereignty over maritime features in the Spratly Islands), its statement rejected most of China’s maritime claims in the Southern part of the South China Sea and the Spratly Islands. This means, with regard to the waters in the Southern part of the South China Sea, including the Spratly Islands, the US does not stand neutral but sided with international law and justice, including UNCLOS and the Tribunal Ruling of July 12th 2016. In other words, the US sided with states that have been intimidated and threatened by China.

According to some observers, the US did not mention waters in the Northern part of the South China Sea and Paracel Islands in its statement because the Tribunal ruling dated July 12th 2016 did not conclude on issues regarding Paracel Islands. The US statement with its legal significance, released a day before the 4th-anniversary of the Tribunal ruling, unveiled the US intention to push for compliance with the Tribunal ruling and encourage the settlement of South China Sea matters by legal means.

Some analysts believe that, apart from its legal and symbolic implications, the US new statement may open up a series of tougher actions in rejecting China’s unlawful maritime claims by military, diplomatic, and legal means. Notably, the US new position may lay the foundation for imposing sanctions against China after determining the line between lawful and unlawful actions. For instance, the US may sanction either individuals or organizations for hampering other states’ fishing activities and legal oil and gas exploration or unilaterally conducting illegal activity such as oil and gas exploration in other states’ waters in the South China Sea.

It waits to be seen the US' upcoming moves to forge adherence to international law in the South China Sea. However, that the US chose this time to release its official position, based on UNCLOS and the Tribunal Ruling date July 12th 2016, is significant for the accentuation of the Tribunal Ruling’s value on its 4th “birthday” celebration.

3. Shortly after the release of “The US position on maritime claim in the South China Sea”, many states voiced their supports to it. Regional states concerned have all expressed their supports for the rule of law in the South China Sea.

On July 14th 2020, the Philippines Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana welcomed the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’ statement, concomitantly, restated the Philippines’ call for Beijing’s compliance with the Tribunal ruling and international law, including UNCLOS.

On the same day, the two most important actors in the South China Sea arbitration also shared their views. The former Philippine Foreign Affair Secretary Del Rosario believed that the Philippines should raise the issues regarding the Tribunal ruling of 2016, which invalidated China’s “nine-dash line” at the 75th session of the UN General Assembly this September to render multilateral support. The former Philippine Supreme Court Chief Justice Antonio Carpio stated that the US’ new statement was a strong message because it disclosed the support for the Tribunal ruling.

On July 14th 2020, the spokesman of Indonesia Ministry of Foreign Affairs Teuku Faizasyah emphasized that any support for Indonesian interests within the adjacent water of Natuna was “rational” and “Indonesia held firm and consistent position concerning Natuna’s water, which was based on UNCLOS 1982. The Tribunal ruling 2016 reaffirmed Indonesian status in this sea area”.

On July 15th 2020, the spokeswoman of Vietnam Ministry of Foreign Affairs underlined that Vietnam welcomed other states’ positions being consistent with international law. Vietnam also shared its view that UNCLOS 1982 set out the legal framework within which all activities in the oceans and seas must be carried out as stated in the statement issued at the 36th ASEAN Summit.

On the US statement, on July 16th 2020, Malaysian Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein asserted Malaysian maintenance of its position that all parties must work together to ensure peace, security and stability in the South China Sea. Meanwhile, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi affirmed that peace and stability in the South China Sea were “hope for all countries”, and Jakarta’s position regarding the South China Sea was “firm and consistent”. Accordingly, “respect for international law, including UNCLOS 1982, was a key aspect and must be enforced by all states” to turn the South China Sea into a sea of peace and stability.

Other non-regional states also aired their supports for the US position on the South China Sea. In a press conference on July 14th 2020, Japan Foreign Minister Motegi Toshimitsu welcomed and supported the statement of the US Secretary of State. Mr Motegi underlined that the positions of Japan and other stakeholders must be consistent with the Tribunal ruling; and Japan would continue to work with the international community, especially the US to protect the freedom of navigation.

In response to the press on July 16th 2020, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison stressed that Australia would continue to adopt a very consistent position, that was to advocate freedom of navigation in the South China Sea very strongly.

On July 16th 2020, the spokesman of India Ministry of External Affairs Anurag Srivastava stated that the South China Sea was a part of global common interests. India’s abiding interests were attached to peace and stability in this region. India would firmly stand for and protect the freedom of navigation, aviation, and lawful commerce from being hindered in these waterways under international law, especially UNCLOS 1982.

Overall, all three critical states of the “QUAD” in the Indo-Pacific aired their supports for the statement about the “US position on maritime claims in the South China Sea”.

It could be seen from those developments that the 4th “birthday” of the Tribunal ruling of July 12th 2016 was impressive. The US’ statement articulates the “rule of law” spirit in the South China Sea, which holds UNCLOS 1982 and the Tribunal ruling in high regard. The US statement is thus believed to drum up more supports from other states to make the 4th “birthday celebration” of the Tribunal ruling more lavish.