21 April 2019
Beijing's inaction in the South China Sea arbitration gave Washington and its allies, particularly Manila, maximum flexibility. Photo: TomoNews
Beijing's inaction in the South China Sea arbitration gave Washington and its allies, particularly Manila, maximum flexibility. Photo: TomoNews

The Hague ruling: Beijing made the bed but refused to lie in it

China was humiliated when a special tribunal rejected its claims to disputed waters in the South China Sea.

But from the beginning, Beijing made it clear it would not be bound by any decision.

Nonetheless, China reacted to the ruling with increasing indignation, calling it a “plot by imperialists” and linking the United States to it.

It said the US is envious of its status as a rising global power.

The Chinese state media derided the ruling as a “farce” and accused the US, Japan and Australia of being behind it.

It said Manila, which brought the case before the tribunal, was a pawn.

This conspiracy theory cannot be proven but it is likely to be true.

The ad hoc panel was created by the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea under then chairman Shunji Yanai to settle the South China Sea issue.

Yanai is a Japanese diplomat described as hostile to China by the official People’s Daily.

Beijing’s miscalculation

Let’s look at the facts.

Disputes over territorial waters are the ambit of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which stipulates an arbitration mechanism such as the five-judge panel that ruled against China.

Each of the disputing parties can appoint one judge to the panel. The three other judges are nominated jointly and must come from a third country.

In this particular instance, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, Netherlands, not a court of law, provided clerical support as an organizer of the tribunal.

Beijing decided against naming a judge to the panel and did not discuss an alternative with Manila.

So Yanai had every authority to appoint all the judges according to established rules.  

Beijing could have delayed the proceedings until Yanai’s retirement, if it thought it could not get an impartial hearing.

Instead, it did nothing when the arbitration process began three years ago.

The inaction by the Chinese foreign ministry and President Xi Jinping (習近平) himself gave maximum flexibility to Manila, Tokyo and Washington.

The ruling surprised no one.

Now Beijing finds itself in an awkward position, with headlines such as “Beijing the loser” “Claims shot down” or “China humiliated” splashed across the international media.

Nine-dash line ambiguities

Beijing’s official map featuring the nine-dash line contributed to the perception that it is bullying its neighbors.

The map was issued in a 2009 document to the United Nations to demarcate its claims to most of the South China Sea.

That marked the start of the longstanding feud between China and 10 countries that border the sea, giving Washington a perfect excuse to step in.

Manila brought its own dispute with China before the tribunal after Beijing unilaterally announced the “nine-dash line”, although the latter did not bother with its exact coordinates.

The idea was first adopted by the Kuomintang government in 1947 when it used 11 dashes to mark China’s territorial waters, with the southernmost tip about four degrees north of the equator.

Since then, however, ambiguities have persisted, including whether the entire area within the nine-dash line is part of China’s claim or only the islands, islets, reefs and surrounding waters.

Manila and Hanoi are at tenterhooks because other than their territorial claims, freedom of navigation in the South China Sea is also at stake.


Perhaps the most important part of the verdict is this: Subi Reef (渚碧礁) and Mischief Reef (美濟礁), among others, are low-tide elevations. They are above water and surrounded by water at low tide but are submerged at high tide.

Thus, these reefs, which are not defined as islands, do not give entitlement to territorial water, continental shelf or exclusive economic zone, which stretches from the baseline out to 200 nautical miles from the coast.

Beijing has built semi-military airstrips on Subi Reef and Mischief Reef.

Before the ruling, US warplanes and naval vessels avoided entering waters within 12 nautical miles of the reefs.

Now that the tribunal has spoken, Chinese and US naval encounters in the area could increase.

Hanoi, Jakarta and other claimants might file similar cases against Beijing. 

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on July 14

Translation by Frank Chen

[Chinese version 中文版]

– Contact us at [email protected]


Read more:

What if there’s a war between Beijing and Washington?

How Beijing’s island-building feeds into Washington’s pivot

Why Diaoyu dispute pales against backdrop of stormy S China Sea

The Hague special tribunal ruled that Beijing does not have historic rights to the disputed waters, handing a landmark victory to Manila. Photo: Internet

Filipino activists rally against China’s island-building in the disputed waters. Photo: Internet

Beijing claims sovereignty over the South China Sea within the ‘nine-dash line’ (left) and has been speeding up militarization in the disputed waters. Photos: Internet,

Former full-time member of the Hong Kong Government’s Central Policy Unit, former editor-in-chief of the Hong Kong Economic Journal

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