The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) found itself in a deadlock after the Permanent Court of Arbitration stated that China had no legitimate claim over the South China Sea since ASEAN ministers did not achieve an agreement to provide a joint response.

The South China Sea is under dispute between China, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei, and the Phillippines, where all countries state that they have legitimate claims to control the waters and its resources. The rival countries have competed for several years now, but lately, the tension was at its highest point.

Philippines Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay declined the offer made by his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi to engage in talks over the South China Sea. Photo credit: AFP-JIJI / Japan Times
Philippines Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay declined the offer made by his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi to engage in talks over the South China Sea. Photo credit: AFP-JIJI / Japan Times

What are the competing countries doing?

China started island-building projects and naval patrols, relying on the claim that they have control over the sea, while some other countries, including the United States that has no part in the territorial dispute, accused China of militarizing the seas.

China’s claim line surrounds several islands that Vietnam and Malaysia, among others, have claimed as well. Especially over Paracels and the Spratlys, two major islands that allegedly have reserves of natural resources that have not been explored or exploited yet.

Vietnam, on the other hand, stated that they have the actual control of the area since the 17th Century, and allegedly had documents to prove it.

The Phillippines stated, on the contrary, that they have sovereignty rights over the seas and the islands due to its proximity to their continental territory, and frequently explore and use the area as if it were part of its territory.

Malaysia and Brunei rely on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), that supposedly puts parts of the sea into their exclusive economic zones.

About the ruling 

The initial claim in the Court was executed by the Republic of the Phillippines against the People’s Republic of China, but it involves the interest of all Asean members.

It’s visible in the ruling that the arbitration concerned the role of historical rights and the source of maritime entitlements in the South China Sea. The status of certain marine features and the maritime entitlements they are capable of generating, and the lawfulness of certain actions by China that were alleged by the Philippines, to violate the UNCLOS.

In that sense, on July 12, the tribunal released the decision, emphasizing that it does not rule on any question of sovereignty over land territory and does not delimit any boundary between the Parties.  It answered each of the 15 submissions made by the Philippines, concluding that

“As between the Philippines and China, there was no legal basis for China to claim historic rights to resources, in excess of the rights provided for by the Convention, within the sea areas falling within the ‘nine-dash line’” according to the press release relative to the South China Sea Arbitration.

The court also ruled about the nature of the islands under dispute, stating that the UNCLOS  does not provide the basis to generate maritime zones collectively as a unit, which must be considered by Asean ministers while drawing new boundaries and lines of sovereignty.

The deadlock

Asean ministers must now reach an agreement to solve all the pending claims on the seas, considering now that China is out of the fight.

Several meetings have been held the last twelve days, all of them closed-doors, and still, the representatives of the countries have not reached a joint response to the issue.

The association must seal the dispute with an agreement that includes all parties’ satisfaction, to settle down the tensions in the region.

Source: Permanent Court of Arbitration