July 12, 2016

CNAS Press Note: The Permanent Court of Arbitration Rules on the South China Sea

By Harry Krejsa, Mira Rapp-Hooper, and Patrick M. Cronin

Washington, July 12 – Following the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s ruling that China’s expansive claims, island building, and coercive activities in the South Chine Sea are unlawful, Center for a New American Security (CNAS) Asia-Pacific Security Program Director Patrick Cronin, Asia-Pacific Security Program Senior Fellow Mira Rapp-Hooper, and Asia-Pacific Security Program Research Associate Harry Krejsa have written a new Press Note, “The Permanent Court of Arbitration Rules on the South China Sea.”

The full Press Note is below:

The ruling handed down from the Permanent Court of Arbitration today is a landmark statement on the primacy of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). On its basis, the arbitrators declared China's expansive Nine-Dash Line claim to the majority of the South China Sea to be unlawful. It further rebuked China for aggravating tensions through assertive maneuvers, denying the Philippines access to shared historic fishing grounds, and engaging in provocative artificial island building. Finally, the court determined that none of the Spratly Islands meet the UNCLOS standard for island entitlements, and therefore neither individually nor collectively warrant 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zones (EEZ). Now it is up to the other claimant states, the region, and the international community to help enforce this milestone judgment. China must be persuaded to eventually do the right thing and comply with an international law it has voluntarily signed and ratified.

The legal issues decided at The Hague today include:

China’s Nine-Dash Line: A boundary Beijing claims based on "historic rights," the Nine-Dash Line encompasses the majority of the South China Sea. China’s claimed boundary was found to have no legal basis under UNCLOS, which upon implementation subsumed all previous maritime claims. 

The status of mid-ocean features: The legal definition of reefs, rocks, and islands under UNCLOS, including their legal entitlements to territorial seas or exclusive economic zones, received substantial clarity. The court found that such entitlements had to be based on natural conditions, not Chinese augmentations, and that none of the Spratly Islands were afforded EEZs—including Itu Aba, the area’s largest natural feature. Consequently, regardless of who exercises sovereignty over the Spratlys, there is no Chinese EEZ overlapping with and reducing the Philippine EEZ.

Chinese coercive actions and island-building: Chinese land reclamation and law enforcement activities were broadly declared unlawful. The court found Beijing was aggravating the dispute, illegally preventing the Philippines from exercising their sovereign rights, and simultaneously violating China’s obligations to protect the marine environment. 

Cronin, Rapp-Hooper, and Krejsa are available for interviews. To arrange an interview, please contact Neal Urwitz at nurwitz@cnas.org or 202-457-9409.


  • Harry Krejsa

    Former Fellow, Center for a New American Security

    Harry Krejsa is a former fellow at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). His research areas included the intersection of foreign policy and middle class economics, Ch...

  • Mira Rapp-Hooper

    Former Adjunct Senior Fellow, Asia-Pacific Security Program

    Mira Rapp-Hooper is a former Adjunct Senior Fellow with the Asia-Pacific Security Program at CNAS. She is formerly a Fellow with the CSIS Asia Program and Director of the CSIS...

  • Patrick M. Cronin

    Former Senior Advisor and Senior Director, Asia-Pacific Security Program

    Patrick M. Cronin is a former Senior Advisor and Senior Director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). Previously, he was the ...