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International Reactions to the South China Sea Ruling

20 July 2016

The international community reacted swiftly to the Hague tribunal ruling with a majority of views calling on Beijing to accept the decision. But several statements from ASEAN members were more cautious simply taking note of the decision and urging the peaceful resolution of disputes.

China’s position was very blunt stating that ‘the award is null and void and has no binding force. China neither accepts nor recognizes it.’ It criticised the unilateral action of the Philippines which was a move taken in bad faith and designed to deny China's territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests in the South China Sea.

Only Pakistan supported the Chinese position stating that it opposes any imposition of unilateral will on others, and respects China's statement of optional exception in light of Article 298 of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

Taiwan was in an interesting position as it shares China’s views on the Nine Dash Line.  It said that the award was completely unacceptable as the decision severely jeopardizes the legal status of the South China Sea Islands, over which the ROC exercises sovereignty, and their relevant maritime rights.

The main critics of China were the US, Japan, Australia and New Zealand. The EU found it difficult to agree a tough line with 28 Member States taking different positions.

The Philippines which had brought the case was rather muted after its victory. It strongly affirmed its respect for this milestone decision as an important contribution to ongoing efforts in addressing disputes in the South China Sea. The decision upholds international law, particularly the 1982 UNCLOS.

Vietnam was pleased that the award emphasised that The Nine dash line had no legal basis, and China could not claim historical rights. But Vietnam has also used historical rights to buttress some of its claims and now finds itself in a difficult legal position.

The US emphasised that the Tribunal’s decision was final and legally binding on both China and the Philippines. It hoped and expected that both parties will comply with their obligations.

Australia agreed that the ruling was final and binding on both parties. New Zealand called on all parties to respect the Tribunal ruling on maritime rights in the South China Sea.

Japan said that it had consistently advocated the importance of the rule of law and the use of peaceful means, not the use of force or coercion, in seeking settlement of maritime disputes.  As the Tribunal’s award was final and legally binding on the parties to the dispute under the provisions of UNCLOS, the parties to this case are required to comply with the award.

The EU simply ‘acknowledged the award’ and reiterated it did not take a position on sovereignty. It called for a swift conclusion of talks on a code of conduct and stated it was ready to facilitate discussions on all aspects of maritime security.

India also noted the award and stated that that States should resolve disputes through peaceful means without threat or use of force and exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that could complicate or escalate disputes affecting peace and stability.

Korea also took note of the decision by and hoped that the decision will, through peaceful and creative diplomatic efforts, facilitate a resolution.

Indonesia simply urged all sides to show self-restraint and to refrain from any steps that could increase tensions in the region.

Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Myanmar noted that the Tribunal issued its award and called on all parties to ensure the full and effective implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC).

These reactions reveal a divided international response. A number of major powers have taken a tough line, others a more nuanced approach while many of China’s neighbours have simply taken note of the award.