Beijing defiance in South China Sea casts international law in troubled waters, warns top Philippine judge

04 October 2017

By CAP student correspondent Diana Tung

A Senior Associate Justice of the Philippine Supreme Court has labelled China’s decision to ignore a ruling on the South China Sea dispute between the two countries as “the gravest external threat to the Philippines since World War II”.

Honourable Justice Antonio Tirol Carpio addressed academics and students at an event held at the Australian National University last week. 

In July 2016, the Philippines won a case it brought to the UN’s Permanent Court of Arbitration against Beijing’s claim over islands in the South China Sea.

The ruling by the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea rejected China’s “nine-dash line” commonly used to assert its sovereignty. Despite the ruling, China has intensified its activities in Manila-claimed areas such as Mischief Reef and Scarborough Shoal.

Justice Carpio argued that China’s construction of military infrastructure with extensive capabilities on artificial islands meant its fighter jets could “reach Palawan in less than 20 minutes”.

China’s agenda in the South China Sea has been a cause of concern not only for its regional partners, but for countries all over the world seeking legal clarity in matters regarding the high seas. Justice Carpio pointed to the ways in which regional and international actors are helping to enforce the ruling.

“France has said, ‘We will ask our European neighbours to conduct regular and visible presence in the South China Sea.’ Why? Because France is concerned that a loss of freedom of navigation in the South China Sea might lead to similar problems in the Arctic Ocean,” said Justice Carpio.

In addition to regional nations and France, the US, the UK and Australia have also pledged to send aircraft and marine vessels into the South China Sea to maintain freedom of navigation.

Despite ongoing tensions, Justice Carpio noted there may still be a viable solution to the conflict based on historical precedent.

“Israel and Jordan signed a peace treaty in 1994 when there was a patch of the Red Sea that they could not agree on, and they declared it a marine peace park,” he said. 

Justice Carpio said the establishment of a similarly protected area would be a “win-win situation for everybody”.

Environmental conservation of the South China Sea is crucial to protecting the spawning grounds for fish that feed over 300 million people in the region.

For information on updates and events on the Philippines, follow the Philippines Project

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Updated:  24 April, 2017/Responsible Officer:  Dean, ANU College of Asia & the Pacific/Page Contact:  CAP Web Team