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Beijing's Claims To South China Sea Are Invalid, International Tribunal Says

An aerial image shows  Taiping island, in the Spratlys chain in the South China Sea, on March 23.

An international tribunal in The Hague has invalidated China's claims in the South China Sea in a first-ever ruling. The decision has been rejected by Beijing.

The disputed waters are claimed by China, Taiwan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and other countries. But China has been the most aggressive in staking out its claim — marking a "nine-dash line" around the bulk of the islands and waters, and building up artificial islands within the disputed region.

The Philippines brought a case against China to international courts. The tribunal announced Tuesday that it found "no legal basis" for China's nine-dash line claims, and that China's actions had violated the Philippines' sovereign rights.

The tribunal further found that in building up artificial islands, China did not establish any valid territorial claims, but did cause severe harm to fragile ecosystems.

"The ruling is legally binding," NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports, "but it will be all but impossible to enforce."

After the ruling, China reiterated its territorial claims, not acknowledging the tribunal's decision.

China's claim to the nine-dash line relies on history, as Anthony explained on Morning Edition.

"China claimed that its fishermen have been fishing in those waters for centuries, and therefore those waters and islands and resources belong to China," Anthony says. "The tribunal said that, yes, Chinese fishermen have been fishing there — but so have other countries, and China never had exclusive use of it."

Michael Sullivan, reporting for NPR from Manila, gave some insight into why the Philippines decided to take the dispute to international court.

"Filipino fishermen traditionally worked these waters, and now they can't, because Chinese coast guard boats chase them away," he says. "When China kicked the Filipinos out of Scarborough Shoal in 2012, that was the last straw. The government had to do something. ... Manila decided its only option really was to take China to court and to keep Beijing, as some here put it, from turning the entire South China Sea into a Chinese lake."

As for what happens next, Anthony says, "China's critics will be able to accuse it of being a sort of international scofflaw. ...

"And for Beijing, this whole South China Sea issue has become one of their biggest diplomatic headaches, both in its relations with its neighbors and with the U.S.," he says.

The United States has avoided taking a position on the many-sided territorial disputes in the region, but has conducted patrols through the disputed waters and maintains the importance of international freedom of passage through the region.

A Department of State spokesman said the U.S. was still studying Tuesday's decision, and called for both parties to "avoid provocative statements or actions" and comply with the legally binding decision.

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