This Tuesday an international tribunal concluded that China has no legal basis for its claim to large swathes of the South China Sea.

The tribunal, which is based in The Hague, ruled in favor of the Philippines in the maritime dispute. The South China Sea has become a hot spot for regional tensions thanks to Chinese expansion in some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, writes Katie Hunt for CNN.

South China Sea US
IMAGE: U.S. Pacific Command, Flickr

Ruling could lead to increased tensions in the South China Sea

China has rejected the ruling from the Permanent Court of Arbitration. “China neither accepts nor recognizes it,” the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement. It is thought that the ruling will have significant effects on the resource rich region.

The Philippines government said that it “strongly affirms its respect for this milestone decision as an important contribution to ongoing disputes in the South China Sea.”

According to the tribunal, China has no right to claim marine resources within the “nine dash line.” This area covers 90% of disputed waters in the South China Sea.

Analysts believe that the ruling could heighten tensions in the region, especially if Beijing reacts defiantly. The ruling also affects other nations with rival claims to the disputed maritime areas, and Malaysia, Taiwan, Vietnam and Brunei could be encouraged to take legal action.

“If China’s nine-dash line is invalid as to the Philippines, it is equally invalid to those States and, indeed, the rest of the international community,” the lawyers who led the Philippines legal team said in a statement.

China violated sovereign rights of the Philippines

The United States has played an important role in the region, sending naval assets and military aircraft to patrol near disputed areas. The Obama administration maintained that its aim was to ensure freedom of navigation, but each mission led to fierce criticism from China.

The U.S. officially has no position on territorial disputes, but has called for an end to land reclamation. China has reclaimed hundreds of square miles of land, while other nations such as Vietnam have done so on a far smaller scale.

According to the tribunal, the sea features claimed by China are not enough to warrant an Exclusive Economic Zone around them. This would give Beijing exclusive rights to exploit resources such as fish, oil and gas within 200 nautical miles of the maritime feature.

Given the fact that there was no Exclusive Economic Zone around the features, the tribunal said that certain Chinese activities breached the Philippines’ sovereign rights. This included interfering with fishing and oil exploration.

Historic ruling makes no mention of future obligations

The tribunal also said that Chinese activities had caused “severe harm” to coral around its artificial islands. Beijing was also found to have “violated its obligation to preserve and protect fragile ecosystems,” while Chinese authorities were also aware that Chinese fisherman killed endangered sea turtles and giant clams “on a substantial scale.”

The Philippines started legal proceedings in 2013, a process in which China refused to participate. The decision marks the first time that an international court has handed down its verdict on rival territorial claims in the South China Sea.

Despite a strong ruling against China, there was no mention of what should happen next in the troubled region. The tribunal said that it “lacked the jurisdiction to consider the implications of a stand-off” between Chinese and Filipino armed forces, specifically at Second Thomas Shoal, and said that any dispute resolution was “excluded from compulsory settlement.”

There were no orders to pay reparations or dismantle construction projects on reclaimed Chinese land. What happens now largely depends on how the Philippines decides to use the ruling in its favor, and how China reacts to its future actions.