The South China Sea Arbitration Award: 5 Years and Beyond
The Arbitral Tribunal established under Annex VII of the 1982 Convention on the Law of the Sea rendered a final award on the South China Sea arbitration dispute on July 12, 2016. (The Award). Since then, this historic judgment has sparked several legal debates and is widely seen as establishing a legal framework for different ways countries in the South China Sea.
In many respects, the Award and its conclusions have aided the evolution of international maritime law and enhanced the legal discussion on South China Sea problems. It has provided a legal basis for all relevant governments to reconsider their South China Sea views and actions.
After a time of prudence and downplaying its success in the South China Sea arbitration, Manila has gradually come to accept the Award's significance.
The Award contributed to reducing the regions of contention in the South China Sea by stating that marine features in the Spratly Islands group could not produce exclusive economic zones (EEZs) or continental shelves.
The Award seemed to have influenced Malaysia's decision to file a partial submission with the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf on December 12, 2019, for a continental shelf in the northern South China Sea that went beyond 200 nautical miles from its baselines. This submission is only valid if it does not overlap between Malaysia's extended continental shelf claim and those of Vietnam and the Philippines.
The Award has also given regional and extra-regional governments a legal foundation to explain their stances on the South China Sea problems.
While China continues to ignore the Arbitral Tribunal's decision, it has made significant changes to its legal position in the South China Sea, most notably by renaming its "nine-dashed line" claims "Four Sha." At the same time, China has tried to pick and choose which UNCLOS provisions it wants to follow - an approach that runs counter to the spirit and notion of UNCLOS's "package deal" touted throughout the talks.
Any change, of course, will take time to penetrate the worldwide community's conscience. The Arbitral Award in the South China Sea has become an indisputable truth in our past and present.
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