Washington endorsed the ruling of The Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in the case of the Republic of Philippines v. People’s Republic of China, noting that the court’s verdict is an important milestone toward peacefully solving territorial disputes in the South China Sea. However, reactions by the U.S. State Department were subdued and there was little sense of triumphalism among diplomats.
“The decision today by the Tribunal in the Philippines-China arbitration is an important contribution to the shared goal of a peaceful resolution to disputes in the South China Sea,” a U.S. State Department press release published this morning notes. “We are still studying the decision and have no comment on the merits of the case, but some important principles have been clear from the beginning of this case and are worth restating.”
The PCA ruled that both China’s nine-dash line and claim to historic rights in the South China Sea are invalid, as my colleague Ankit Panda reported earlier today:
The Tribunal’s award is highly favorable to the Philippines, ruling that China’s nine-dash line claim and accompanying claims to historic rights have no validity under international law; that no feature in the Spratly Islands, including Taiwan-occupied Itu Aba (or Taiping Island), is an island under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS); and that the behavior of Chinese ships physically obstructing Philippine vessels is unlawful.
Although the United States has never acceded to UNCLOS, it accepts the UN convention as customary international law. The State Department points out that the court’s decision is legally binding on both China and the Philippines. (Interestingly, the United States denied the PCA’s jurisdiction in a case involving the United States in the 1980s.)
“When joining the Law of the Sea Convention, parties agree to the Convention’s compulsory dispute settlement process to resolve disputes,” the statement said. “In today’s decision and in its decision from October of last year, the Tribunal unanimously found that the Philippines was acting within its rights under the Convention in initiating this arbitration.”
In the press release, the State Department also calls all claimants to avoid provocative actions or statements, and to find a peaceful solution to the maritime disputes:
We encourage claimants to clarify their maritime claims in accordance with international law — as reflected in the Law of the Sea Convention — and to work together to manage and resolve their disputes. Such steps could provide the basis for further discussions aimed at narrowing the geographic scope of their maritime disputes, setting standards for behavior in disputed areas, and ultimately resolving their underlying disputes free from coercion or the use or threat of force.
U.S. lawmakers have called for the United States to uphold freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea. U.S. Senator Ben Cardin, the top-ranking Democrat in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the United States should “fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows,” according to the New York Times. Republican Senator John McCain reiterated that the United States should help prevent the militarization of the South China Sea and also spoke out against the construction of artificial islands in the disputed waters.