China’s claims in South China Sea are invalid, tribunal rules, in victory for the Philippines

Delivering a sweeping moral victory for the Philippines, an international tribunal ruled Tuesday that China’s claims to “historic rights” across a vast expanse of the South China Sea are invalid.

The Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague, Netherlands, also said that no land formations in the South China Sea — whoever controls them — are big enough to warrant exclusive maritime zones beyond 12 miles.

In recent years, China has asserted what it views as territorial rights in the sea by building up remote reefs into much larger land forms. Its fishing fleets have used those assertions to move into areas claimed by other countries, including the Philippines.

The five-judge panel said China’s island-building activities violated the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, as did its moves to deny Filipinos access to their traditional fishing grounds. The panel also rapped China for environmental destruction it said was a breach of UNCLOS.


There is no way for the Philippines to immediately enforce the ruling, and it is not clear what practical effect it might have. Experts said it could force Manila and Beijing back to the negotiating table — or prompt other countries to take similar legal action.