The Spratly Islands
In a time when the United States is slowly slipping away from its former title as the global hegemon, countries, like the People’s Republic of China (“China”), are asserting their regional power. China’s place within southeast Asia is shifting into one of greater influence. This is most clearly visible in China’s role in the enduring Spratly Island drama and its complete rejection of the United Nations Permanent Court of Arbitration’s (“Tribunal”) final decision.
Disputes over a handful of islands in the middle of the sea have been a historically complex international legal debate, involving issues such as water rights, natural resource rights, economic rights, military occupation rights, and more. The Spratly Islands disputes are paradigmatic of this convoluted international problem. The Spratly Islands consists of more than a hundred islands or reefs located in the South China Sea, occupying a 150,000 square mile area, which are valuable for political, economic, and military reasons. The Spratly Islands are surrounded by Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam, Philippines, Singapore, the People’s Republic of China (“China”), and Taiwan. Because all of these states have relative proximity and centrality to the Spratly Islands, they each claim total or partial entitlement to the Spratly Islands, excluding Singapore. China, Taiwan, and Vietnam claim the Spratly Islands in their entirety, while Brunei, Malaysia, and Philippines stake partial claim. Consequently, historical international dispute has arisen over the Spratly Islands. It has been a backdrop for ongoing territorial disputes since the 1960s.
The disputes that arise in the South China Sea stem from China’s overreach. China’s greater military strength is a substantial factor and reality to consider in the disputes, and “any agreement concerning the Spratly Islands that does not satisfy China’s interest would fail at its inception.” It has claimed “historic rights” to essentially the entire South China Sea, including the area which encompasses the Spratly Islands. After decades of dispute, the Philippines brought a claim against China to the United Nations Permanent Court of Arbitration in 2013.
The Philippines brought the claim under the United Nations Convention of Law and the Sea, which governs maritime disputes and the law of the sea at large. The main issues the Philippines presented were that: (1) China did not have “historic rights” to the Spratly Islands; (2) territories in the Spratly Islands are reefs and rocks, not islands, which do not generate independent entitlement to maritime zones; and (3) China conducted illegal activities in the South China Sea. In an incredibly surprising decision to the international community, the Tribunal asserted jurisdiction over the claims and ruled in favor of the Philippines on all its submissions.
China has continually refused to recognize the validity of the Tribunal’s jurisdiction over the case, and consequently its decision in favor of the Philippines. The Tribunal’s decision to rule heavily in favor of the Philippines presents the global community with a unique problem. China’s refusal to participate in the arbitration tribunal undoubtedly complicates the outcome of the Tribunal’s decision. China has a variety of options: it can comply with the decision; ignore the decision and proceed as before; withdraw as a party from UNCLOS; or increase aggressiveness in the South China Sea and in its activities in the claimed territories in the Spratly Islands. The optimal outcome is certainly for China to peacefully resolve the dispute and comply with the Tribunal’s decisions. However, the Tribunal’s harsh rulings against China make it very difficult for China to save face. Alternatively, China could engage in diplomatic negotiations with the Philippines to resolve the Spratly Islands disputes based on the Award. This would allow China to save face, in an appearance of bilateral negotiations, while complying with certain aspects of the Award on its own timeline. This would require the Philippines to be flexible, but may be the most practical option, taking into account China’s superior political position in Asia. As it stands, the international community is at a loss for how to deal with China’s rising power. Only time will dictate how the maritime dispute will unfold.