South China Sea decision reverberates around Asia-Pacific

14 July 2016

The highly-anticipated ruling in favour of the Philippines by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the South China Sea dispute with China will have far-reaching implications for international law and international relations, particularly in the Asia-Pacific.

ANU experts have been at the forefront of analysis and debate around the issue both in the lead up to and in the aftermath of the tribunal's decision.

In line with expectations, China has rejected the ruling.

Dr John Blaxland from the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the ANU Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs said, "we are seeing China assert itself over the South China Sea in a way that appears to be about diminishing American influence."

"China is now in an awkward position where the rest of the world is standing up against it."

Moving forward, Dr Blaxland says, "it is important that the Philippines' partner nations in ASEAN work hard to find a way forward that seeks to break through this impasse."

International Law Expert Professor Don Rothwell of the ANU College of Law highlighted that in handing down its ruling the tribunal "was hamstrung because it didn't have the advantage of Chinese legal argument and there were very good legal arguments that China could have presented."

China made clear at the outset of the case that it would not accept the ruling, whatever it may be, and in spite of its legally binding nature.

"The proceedings are ones in which China absolutely refused to be part of and that created significant challenges for the tribunal," Rothwell says, noting that the tribunal "did go to great lengths to provide China with opportunities to participate, even at very late stages of the proceedings."

The National Security College's Marina Tsirbas stressed the need for nations to get behind the ruling and in so doing stand up for a rules-based global order.

"Triumphalism should not be the order of the day," Tsirbas warns. "It will be important for all nations to take a measured tone and approach going forward."

Tsirbas says the decision has widespread consequences, both as a test case for the law of the sea specifically, and for a rules-based global order more broadly. 

"The diplomatic and geopolitical ripples from the ruling will be felt for some time."

For more post-arbitration analysis you can listen to a special Policy Forum Pod with Dr Blaxland and Professor Rothwell 'Judgement day in the South China Sea' or read Marina's analysis for Policy Forum 'Ruling the South China Sea'.

On New Mandala Bates Gill of the Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs and William Read take a look at why the ruling could lead to diplomatic solutions rather than stoke tensions. Dr Gill and his Bell School colleague Dr Evelyn Goh are also authors of a new report launched this week, The dynamics of US-China-Southeast Asia relations. Dr Greg Raymond of the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, meanwhile, writes that the South China Sea ruling is a test to our 'patchwork' global order and asks whether Beijing will pass this test.

Image credit: CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative / DigitalGlobe