An NPR member station
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

International Tribunal Rejects China's Claim To South China Sea


One of the most contentious disputes in Asia has come before an international court. And a tribunal at The Hague has ruled in favor of the Philippines and against China in their contest over control of the South China Sea. Now this ruling is likely to have serious implications in the region and also for the United States, so we're going to travel to both countries that were directly parties to this lawsuit, starting in Beijing, China, with NPR's Anthony Kuhn. Anthony, would you just remind us what this is about? It's a body of water off the coast of China. There are islands in it. What was China trying to do?

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: OK, Steve, one of China's biggest claims was something called a nine-dash line it drew on the map. And this line extends from hundreds of miles out from China's shore and very close to the shores of its neighbors, especially the Philippines. And China claimed that its fishermen have been fishing in those waters for centuries, and therefore those waters and islands and resources belonged to China. Well, the tribunal said that, yes, Chinese fishermen have been fishing there, but so have other countries, and China never had exclusive use of it. So it invalidated the nine-dash line. Another thing that the Philippines was complaining about was that China has been building on reefs and islands in the South China Sea. And the tribunal said that these islands are not habitable, and therefore China does not get territorial waters. It does not get rights to any sort of exclusive economic zone around those islands that it's been building on. It also said that China had infringed on Philippines' sovereign rights.

INSKEEP: You are reminding us what they're building on the islands. They're building airstrips and so forth. This wasn't purely, or even necessarily at all, about fishing. It was about control. It was about power. It was about military and economic power, which gets us to the Philippines' side of the argument. Michael Sullivan is - has reported on the Philippines over the years. And why were the Philippines bringing this lawsuit exactly?

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Frustration mostly, Steve. From the Philippines' point of view, China has been slowly nibbling away at what Manila sees as its patch for years now - Mischief Reef, Subi Reef, Scarborough Shoal. And that's bad from a political point of view and from an economic one because, as Anthony mentioned, Filipino fishermen traditionally work these waters, and now they can't because Chinese coast guard boats chase them away. So when China kicked the Filipinos out of Scarborough Shoal in 2012, that was the last straw. The government had to do something. It couldn't fight. It doesn't really have a navy. It doesn't have a single jet fighter. So what could it do? Manila decided its only option, really, was to take China to court and keep Beijing, as some here put it, from turning the entire South China Sea into a Chinese lake. Today, Manila won, in theory.

INSKEEP: OK, in theory, you just said. Anthony Kuhn, is China going to obey this court ruling?

KUHN: It's certainly not. It said all along that it will ignore the ruling. It says that the tribunal has no jurisdiction over this whole matter and that China has long said that it's not bound by any third-party arbitration. Now, of course, a lot of experts have been rejecting these claims all along. At the end of the day, China's leadership made a political decision to boycott the whole affair. And it would have been difficult for them to argue this because the nine-dash line, for example, has never really been spelled out exactly where it lies. They've never given the coordinates to it. So the upshot, I think, is that China's critics will be able to accuse it of being a sort of international scofflaw, a challenger to the rules-based international order. And for Beijing, this whole South China Sea issue has become one of their biggest diplomatic headaches, both in its relations with its neighbors and with the U.S..

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about that. Michael Sullivan, what is the Philippines going to do now that they have this victory that China has resolved to ignore?

SULLIVAN: Well, the foreign secretary has already called the decision a milestone. But other than that, Steve, I think the reaction's going to be pretty subdued. He made it clear that the way forward is through discussion, through engagement with China. The newly elected president here, Rodrigo Duterte, has taken a much more conciliatory tone than his predecessor towards China already. He says he's open to Chinese investment and might even be open to the idea of some sort of joint venture to develop natural resources - gas and oil - in what people here call the West Philippine Sea if Beijing is willing because the Philippines knows that, ruling or no, it's playing a weak hand. It has to live in a region where China is the biggest and the strongest actor, and they know that here. But President Duterte isn't going to give away the store because anti-Chinese sentiment here is still pretty high because of this issue, and he knows it. So talk is what they're going to do.

INSKEEP: That's Michael Sullivan in Manila and NPR's Anthony Kuhn in Beijing. Thanks to you both. You're welcome Steve.

SULLIVAN: You're welcome, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.
Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.