South China Sea ruling bolsters tougher U.S. stance
By David B. Larter
160705-N-OI810-626 SOUTH CHINA SEA (July 5, 2016) The Navy's only forward-deployed aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) transits the South China Sea. Ronald Reagan, the Carrier Strike Group Five (CSG 5) flagship, is on patrol in the U.S. 7th Fleet area of responsibility supporting security and stability in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Nathan Burke/Released)
An international panel rejected the legality of China's expansive territorial claims to the South China Sea that were furthered by extensive island-building, a tactic The legality China’s man-made islands in the South China Sea, a tactic that has drawn the ire of U.S. Navy leaders, was rejected Tuesday in a ruling by an international panel of judges in The Hague.
While The ruling Tuesday was a one-sided victory for the Philippines, which brought the case against China to the Permanent Court of Arbitration, and was also a win for U.S. it was also victory of sorts for senior Navy leaders who have warned China was bullying its neighbors to bolster its claims to nearly all of the South China Sea.said China was acting like a bully and using coercive tactics to bolster its claims.
The panel in The Hague, Netherlands, The court rejected China’s claim that it had resource rights to nearly all of the South China Sea and dismissed China’s attempt to create legal rights for features in the Spratly Islands chain by constructing air strips and bases there. The ruling states that ruled that The court ruled that simply piling dirt and sand on rocky outcroppings and reefs doesn't confer additional resource rights to the waters around it. didn’t give the feature any additional rights, instead ruling that international law applied to the features in their natural, unaltered state, according to a statement from the Tribunal.
The ruling did not, however, resolve the competing sovereignty claims for high-tide features such as Scarborough Shoal, which the tribunal found were entitled to 12-mile territorial seas. The court did find that none of the contested features were entitled to the 200-mile exclusive economic zones, because none of them could support human habitation in their natural state.
The ruling was rejected outright by China, the whose which said in a statement from its Foreign Ministry of which said that the court overstepped its jurisdiction by tossing aside a previous agreement between the Philippines and China to resolve the dispute bilaterally. China has embarked on massive island-building to bolster claims to was counting on the man-made islands to give them the exclusive economic rights to much of the South China Sea, and give them a strong hand to develop deposits of oil and gas in areas nearby the Spratley Islands.
The U.S. Navy referred all questions on the ruling to the State Department. A statement from retired Rear Adm. John Kirby, the state department spokesman, said The State Department was still reviewing the ruling and had no immediate comment on the merits Tuesdayhave no immediate comment.
"In the aftermath of this important decision, we urge all claimants to avoid provocative statements or actions," John Kirby said in a statement said. "This decision can and should serve as a new opportunity to renew efforts to address maritime disputes peacefully."
At the time of the highly anticipated rulingOn the morning of the ruling, the U.S. had a heavy presence in the South China Sea, which included the carrier Ronald Reagan, the cruisers Shiloh and Chancellorsville, and as well as the destroyers Benfold, Curtis Wilbur and Stethem.
U.S. officials, including Secretary of Defense Secretary Ash Carter and U.S. Pacific Command head Adm. Harry Harris, have regularly stated that the U.S. would fly, sail or operate wherever international law allows but there was no official word on whether the U.S. saw the ruling as binding under international law.
"It's my sense that some nations view freedom of the seas as up for grabs, as something that can be taken down and redefined by domestic law or by reinterpreting international law," Swift told an October maritime conference in Sydney, Australia. "Some nations continue to impose superfluous warnings and restrictions on freedom of the seas in their exclusive economic zones and claim territorial water rights that are inconsistent with [the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea]. This trend is particularly egregious in contested waters."
The U.S. Navy has been increasing its patrols of the South China Sea in 2016, according to experts and observers, even as Navy officials have called the deployments "routine."downplayed the increases.
In 2015, the total number of ship patrol days there was more than over 700, but already in 2016 they are on track to exceed 1,000 days — the Navy counts every day a warship spends in the South China Sea as counted as a ship-day and the tally is cumulative by Navy math.
"On any given day you are seeing two or more ships operating in the South China Sea," said Bonnie Glaser, who directs the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.CSIS.
In April, Navy Times reported that Harris was pushing for a more assertive approach in the South China Sea that aimed to stop China's island-building and bullying of its neighbors. Since then, Pentagon leaders have announced joint patrols with the Philippines and have embarked on close patrols of some disputed claims and islands.Leaders in the White House were cautious about that approach, seeking to get Beijing’s cooperation on a host of other policy priorities, including the recently signed Iran nuclear deal and a major trade agenda the Obama administration has been pressing.
Among the foremost flash points in the South China Sea is Scarborough Shoal. Situated 140 miles from the Philippines' capital, China seized this shoal in 2012 and has signaled it intends to build on it. The panel did not rule on whether the Philippines or China owns Scarborough, finding only that the rightful owner of this high-tide shoal is entitled to 12-mile territorial waters but not the 200-mile exclusive economic zone.
Both Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill praised the ruling, saying that the U.S. should see the arbitration panel's ruling as binding.
Republican Sens. John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Dan Sullivan, R-Arkansas, said they saw the decision as legally binding.
"Today's completion of the arbitration process would not have been possible without the commitment of the Philippine government to pursue a course of action to resolve these maritime disputes peacefully, consistent with international law, and through international arbitration mechanisms," in a joint statement. "In the future, we encourage other South China Sea claimants, including Vietnam, to seek similar resolution of maritime disputes through arbitration as well as by negotiation among the parties."
McCain and Sullivan called on China to back down from intimidation and uphold the ruling.
"With today's award, China faces a choice. China can choose to be guided by international law, institutions, and norms," the statement read. "Or it can choose to reject them and pursue the path of intimidation and coercion. Too often in recent years, China has chosen the latter. The world will be watching to see the choice China makes."
The ranking leading Ddemocrat on the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Joe Courtney of Connecticut, said the ruling codified his judgment that China was breaking international law.
"This ruling makes clear what the United States and its allies in the region already know — that China's excessive maritime claims and reclamation activity in the South China Sea are not only inconsistent with international law but also highly disruptive to stability of the region," Courtney said.
Courtney also called on the U.S. to ratify the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, to which the U.S. abides by but has never adopted.
About David B. Larter
David B. Larter was the naval warfare reporter for Defense News.