National Security

International Court Rejects China’s South China Sea Claims

South China Sea / AP

An international court has ruled against China’s claims over disputed territory in the South China Sea, finding that there is no evidence that China has historically exercised exclusive control over the bulk of the region's waters or resources.

A tribunal at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, Netherlands, on Tuesday issued the ruling, more than three years after the Philippines brought the case challenging China’s territorial claims over the Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea. Both the Philippines and China have claimed sovereignty over the triangle of reef and rocks, and China has occupied it since 2012.

The Philippines eventually brought 15 claims against China in relation to the U.N. Convention Law of the Sea, which both nations have ratified.

China immediately rejected the ruling, labeling it "illegal" and arguing that the tribunal has no jurisdiction in the case.

Ahead of Tuesday’s ruling, the Pentagon urged China to accept the decision; China has long said that it will not do so. China has also refused to participate in the court proceedings.

The ruling will likely not settle disputes in the South China Sea, where China’s aggressive territorial claims and island building have become a source of international tension. China has laid claim to nearly all of the South China Sea and this year deployed surface-to-air missiles on a disputed island in the Paracel chain.

The U.S. Navy has sailed multiple warships near disputed islands in the region in recent months, an exercise of freedom of navigation through international waters. The moves have sparked rebuke from China.

Abraham Denmark, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for East Asia, said at a joint hearing of House Armed Services Committee subcommittees last week that the ruling would represent a crucial crossroads for the region.

"It will present an opportunity for those in the region to determine whether the Asia-Pacific’s future will be defined by adherence to international laws and norms that have enabled it to prosper or that the region’s future will be determined by raw calculations of power," Denmark stated.

Last week, China’s military commenced naval exercises in the South China Sea ahead of the highly-anticipated ruling.

Several nations have territorial claims in the region, including Brunei, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Taiwan.