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It was an unequivocal rebuke of China’s expansive maritime claims and increasingly assertive posturing in adjacent waters. An arbitral tribunal, constituted under Article 287, Annex VII of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), handed the Philippines a landmark victory against its giant neighbor. Most experts anticipated a favorable outcome, but few predicted its breadth. Not only did the tribunal exercise jurisdiction on almost all of the Philippines’ arguments, it also ruled favorably on the most thorny and consequential items, particularly China’s doctrine of “historic rights.”

By skillfully limiting its case to questions of “sovereign rights” and maritime entitlement claims, the Philippines transformed the UNCLOS into a primary legal reference for resolving the South China Sea disputes. Unsurprisingly, China rejected the verdict with characteristic braggadocio, dismissing it as a “a piece of scrap paper” that is “null and void” in the view of the Chinese nation. It has insisted that the arbitration body has gone beyond its mandate by ruling against China’s claims in the South China Sea.

But as legal experts have argued, it is ultimately up to the arbitration bodies—not signatories—constituted under the aegis of the UNCLOS to decide whether they can exercise jurisdiction over a maritime dispute or not. Last October, the arbitration body flatly rejected China’s invocation of exemption clauses (Art. 298, Section 2, Part XV) under the…

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