Philippines v. China: Arbitration Outcomes

On July 12 an arbitral tribunal issued a long-awaited ruling in Manila’s case against Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea. How did the judges rule and how does the area of the South China Sea they found to be legally disputed compare to China’s infamous nine-dash line claim?


The tribunal invalidated Beijing’s claims to ill-defined historic rights throughout the nine-dash line, found that Scarborough Shoal is a rock entitled only to a 12-nautical-mile territorial sea, and surprised many observers by ruling on the legal status of every feature in the Spratly Islands raised by the Philippines. It found that none of the Spratlys, including the largest natural features—Itu Aba, Thitu Island, Spratly Island, Northeast Cay, and Southwest Cay—are legally islands because they cannot sustain a stable human community or independent economic life. As such, they are entitled only to territorial seas, not EEZs or continental shelves. Of the seven Spratlys occupied by China, the court ruled that Johnson Reef, Cuarteron Reef, Fiery Cross Reef, and Gaven Reef are rocks, while Hughes Reef and Mischief Reef are below water at high-tide and therefore generate no maritime entitlements of their own. It also ruled that Kennan Reef is a low-tide elevation, while Second Thomas Shoal and Reed Bank are submerged and belong to the Philippine continental shelf. Taken together, these decisions effectively invalidate any Chinese claim within the nine-dash line to more than the disputed islets themselves and the territorial seas they generate.