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The Arbitral Court’s Ruling on the South China Sea: Pros and Cons, Contexts and Consequences

  • Jay L. Batongbacal ,
  • Song Yann-huei

Audio and transcript from the Southeast Asia Program event, "The Arbitral Court’s Ruling on the South China Sea: Pros and Cons, Contexts and Consequences," with on Oct. 6, 2016 with Jay Batongbacal and Song Yann-huei.

Conflicting views of international law versus national interest are churning the South China Sea. In The Hague on July 12, 2016, an Arbitral Tribunal ruled in favor of the Republic of the Philippines and against the People’s Republic of China regarding the latter’s claims and behavior in the South China Sea. Beijing has denounced the decision and refuses to abide by it. The Philippines’ new and outspoken president has refused to press China toward compliance, seemingly preferring to seek economic benefits from China instead. The United States and Japan, among other countries, have supported the ruling, but in a muted fashion, as if to avoid antagonizing China. 

Did the Arbitral Court do the right or the wrong thing? Did the judges (in)correctly interpret the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)? Has the unwillingness of Manila and Washington to champion the court’s decision made the prospect of Beijing’s eventual dominance in Southeast Asia more likely? Has China’s self-assigned and so far successful impunity undermined global compliance with UNCLOS? Or does Beijing’s pragmatic emphasis on realpolitik over moralpolitik point the way toward a practical alleviation of tensions that global jurisprudence cannot achieve? And what if the court’s ruling were applied to other sweeping maritime claims to land features in the Pacific, including the exclusive economic zones drawn by Tokyo around Okinotorishima or by Washington around its mid-ocean “Minor Outlying Islands”? Would the United States comply? And lastly: What next?