Dead in the Water: The South China Sea Arbitral Award, One Year Later

Revisiting the July 2016 award on the South China Sea disputes between the Philippines and China.

Dead in the Water: The South China Sea Arbitral Award, One Year Later
Credit: Erik De Castro, Reuters

On July 12, 2016, the Hague-based arbitral tribunal that heard the case of the Philippines against China on their maritime disputes in the South China Sea issued its award. The award comprehensively supported nearly all of the 15 submissions made by the Philippines and represented a major advancement in interpreting and clarifying the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). UNCLOS is widely regarded by international law specialists as the constitution of the world’s oceans and both China and the Philippines have signed and ratified the convention.

According to UNCLOS Annex VII, Article 11, which outlines arbitration, “The award shall be final and without appeal… It shall be complied with by the parties to the dispute.” Looking back over the past year, however, it is evident that the arbitral tribunal’s award is dead in the water. Neither China nor the Philippines have complied with the award. China denounced the entire arbitral process from the start and has repeatedly stated it does not recognize the authority of the tribunal. In the meantime, the Philippines, under the new administration of President Rodrigo Duterte, has set aside the award in an effort to improve relations with China.

As a result of national elections held in May 2016, Rodrigo Duterte was sworn in as the Philippines’ new president on June 30, replacing Benigno Aquino, who initiated the arbitral proceedings against China in January 2013. The new Philippine administration issued a statement on July 12 that welcomed the arbitral tribunal’s award and called “on all those concerned to exercise restraint and sobriety… The Philippines strongly affirms its respect for this milestone decision as an important contribution to ongoing efforts in addressing disputes in the South China Sea.”

Duterte, however, has repeatedly stated he would set aside the arbitral tribunal’s award and pursue bilateral discussions with China.