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South China Sea ruling: our experts explain its significance

13 July 2016

According to our experts, this week's landmark South China Sea ruling could have a significant and lasting impact on international relations.  

The littoral combat ship USS Freedom (LCS 1) transits the South China Sea during a photo exercise with other US navy ships.

Combat ship USS Freedom transits the South China Sea during a photo exercise with other US navy ships. Image: Wikimedia commons.

In 2013, an arbitration case was brought by the Philippines - under former President Benigno Aquino III - against China, concerning certain maritime rights and entitlements in the South China Sea including the legality of China's "nine-dotted line" claim over the disputed waters.

This week, the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague delivered a verdict which ruled in favour of the Philippines on almost all accounts and declared that China has no legal or historic claim on the region.

How will the ruling impact on the balance of power between the United States and China?

According to Dr Malcolm Jorgensen from the Sydney Centre for International Law at the Sydney Law School, the outcome of the South China Sea arbitration case confirms China's expansive maritime and territorial claims in the region as contrary to international law.

"China's continued defence of 'historic rights', and forceful rejection of the Philippines' initiated arbitration, signals a more fundamental challenge to the integrity of a 'rules-based order' in the Asia-Pacific," he said. 

"Shifting regional power balances between the United States and China remain key to whether The Hague tribunal's ruling will be respected, and to the future ability of states to peacefully settle disputes in the South China Sea."

What will be China's next move?

Ashley Townshend, Research Fellow with the University of Sydney's United States Studies Centre said how China reacted in the coming months would reveal the extent of its willingness to operate within the bounds of existing global rules.

"This will have profound implications for the stability of Asia's rules-based order," said Townshend, an expert in security and strategic affairs, including maritime disputes in the South China Sea.

How will the ruling impact on new Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte's approach to relations with China?

Adjunct Associate Professor Jonathan Bogais – an expert in foreign affairs and conflict, with a particular focus on the Philippines – said yesterday's ruling could pose a dilemma for the Philippines' new President Rodrigo Duterte, who has made recent efforts to better his country's relationship with China.  

"Gone are the days when the Philippines' administration supported the US rebalance in the Asia-Pacific region fully and unconditionally. Former President Benigno Aquino III made the Philippines' Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement with Washington possible – a key strategic component of US military strategy in the region," says Adjunct Associate Professor Bogais, from the University of Sydney's Department of Sociology and Social Policy.

"However, new President Rodrigo Duterte has made it clear that he does not want a confrontation with China. Although he will not abandon traditional ties with the US, he will explore the economic opportunities offered by China. President Duterte needs this relationship in order to meet some of his key election promises to reduce poverty and inequality.

"The US government's appointment of Sung Kim – the current special representative for North Korea policy and a veteran communist watcher – to be the next US Ambassador to the Philippines could be an indication of US apprehensions about the Duterte presidency.

"How Duterte manages the balancing act between the Philippines and China, and the Philippines and the US will have considerable impact on the future landscape of the region."

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