The ruling by the Arbitration Tribunal that is comprehensively in favour of the case filed by the Philippines in January 2013 poses four separate tests, none of them easy.

1. The test for China

The biggest test is that posed by the ruling for China. It is also the most difficult. Now, if China simply continues its present actions around features in the Philippine exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea and continues to insist on the validity of the 9-dash line, it will be unambiguously undertaking unlawful activities. This will deepen the already profound distrust and fear of China in the region and contribute to China’s self-isolation in maritime East Asia. As President Xi notes, big powers are different to smaller ones. Ignoring international law should not be one of these differences.

2. The test for Taiwan's DPP government

As Taiwan is the other nine-dash line claimant, the ruling also poses a major challenge for the nation's new DPP government. While Taiwan is excluded from UNCLOS, the DPP has supported aligning Taiwan’s claim in the South China Sea with international maritime law. The nine-dash line claim and Taiwan’s argument that Itu Aba is an island with rights to a continental shelf and an exclusive economic zone have been judged unlawful. The DPP government can distance itself from Beijing and the KMT opposition and strengthen relations with maritime Southeast Asia, the US, Japan, the EU, etc by acknowledging the ruling. Or it can remain tied to Beijing and the KMT on this issue.

3. The test for Philippines President Duterte

The ruling limits the latitude for the newly installed Duterte administration to distance itself from its predecessor by seeking better relations with Beijing. The ruling that no land feature in the Spratlys or Scarborough Shoal has rights to an exclusive economic zone or continental shelf likely precludes any further discussions of Philippine-China joint development in what the Tribunal has ruled is the Philippine exclusive economic zone. Duterte will also be under greater domestic and international pressure to publicly oppose present Chinese actions that limit Philippine maritime rights in their exclusive economic zone. Nuanced diplomacy, a rare skill the new Duterte team has yet to display, will be needed for the Philippines to leverage this ruling into better relations with China and support at home.

4. The test for the US

The Tribunal ruling that a number of land features in the Spratlys are low-water elevations with no territorial sea rights will likely increase pressure both within and outside of the US for new US navy freedom of navigation operations within 12 nautical miles of these features. If the US does not quickly conduct such an operation then it may appear that the Obama administration is making a China exception to the US’ global exercise of freedom of navigation rights as defined by the US.

Yesterday’s ruling ushers in a new, testing time in the South China Sea; it is much more a beginning than a conclusion.

Photo: US Department of Defense