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International Tribunal Rules Against China’s Claims Regarding South China Sea Reefs

07/12/2016

A ruling from an international tribunal discounting China’s claims with respect to Scarborough Reef and the Spratlys could complicate efforts to mount another DXpedition to the rare and remote South China Sea DXCC entities. The Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague ruled this week in favor of the Philippines in a dispute with China over Scarborough Reef — also known as Scarborough Shoal. A 2016 DXpedition has been reported to be in the works. The tribunal said that although navigators and fishermen from China and other states have historically made use of South China Sea islands, there was no evidence that China had historically exercised exclusive control over the waters or resources. According to the tribunal, China had violated the Philippines’ sovereign rights and has caused “severe harm to the coral reef environment” by building artificial islands and an air strip. China, which refused to take part in the arbitration, said it would not be bound by the tribunal’s ruling. China claims almost all of the South China Sea, including reefs and islands also claimed by other countries, but the tribunal made clear that its ruling did not address issues of territorial sovereignty.

“This arbitration concerned the role of historic rights and the source of maritime entitlements in the South China Sea, the status of certain maritime features and the maritime entitlements they are capable of generating, and the lawfulness of certain actions by China that were alleged by the Philippines to violate the Convention,” the Permanent Court of Arbitration explained in a lengthy news release on July 12. “In light of limitations on compulsory dispute settlement under the Convention [on the Law of the Sea], the Tribunal has emphasized that it does not rule on any question of sovereignty over land territory and does not delimit any boundary between the parties.” Scarborough Reef is claimed by China, the Philippines, and Taiwan.

In recent years, China has been actively expanding the land area of the unpopulated reefs such as Scarborough and establishing a burgeoning military presence, which it has deployed to keep away any visitors on land or by sea. The tribunal said this activity, since the arbitration began, has unlawfully aggravated and extended the dispute.

In April 2015, a Chinese naval vessel “harassed a Philippine Air Force patrol flight in the Spratlys,” according to one news account, by firing an illumination round. The incident postponed a Philippine Navy flight that was to evacuate an ailing participant of the just-ended DX0P Spratly Islands DXpedition. More recently, a private aircraft carrying a BBC reporter received radio warnings from the Chinese Navy to stay away from the South China Sea reefs and islands that China claims.

The Spratlys are claimed in whole or in part by China, the Philippines, Vietnam, and other countries. The Philippines National Telecommunications Commission issued the DX0P license.

During the May 2007, the BS7H DXpedition to Scarborough Reef — at the time the most-wanted DXCC entity — team members, under a license issued by the People’s Republic of China, operated from wooden platforms mounted atop each of the reef’s four rocks that are exposed during high tide.

The Philippines has stated that no amount of artificial reclamation can change the status of the islands’ features for the purposes of the UN Convention.



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