HAGUE: China has no legal basis to claim "historic rights" to islands in the South China Sea and has violated Manila's sovereign rights, an international tribunal ruled on Tuesday (Jul 12), in a bitter dispute that risks stoking further tensions in Southeast Asia.
"The tribunal concluded that there was no legal basis for China to claim historic rights within the sea areas falling within the 'nine-dash line'," The Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration said in a statement.
Manila - which had lodged the suit against Beijing in 2013 - welcomed the ruling but China reacted furiously, saying it "does not accept and does not recognise" the decision.
"The award is null and void and has no binding force," Beijing's foreign ministry said on its website. "China neither accepts nor recognises it."
Beijing "does not accept any means of third party dispute settlement or any solution imposed on China," it added, reiterating its long-standing position on the dispute.
China is dedicated to maintaining peace and stability in the South China Sea but will not accept any positions or actions based on the outcome of the arbitration case over the dispute, President Xi Jinping said on Tuesday.
Beijing had refused to participate in the case, saying the tribunal had "no jurisdiction" over the issue.
Beijing claims most of the South China Sea, even waters approaching neighbouring countries, as its sovereign territory, basing its arguments on Chinese maps dating back to the 1940s marked with a so-called "nine-dash line".
Chinese media earlier called the court a "law-abusing tribunal" and said the award was "ill-founded".
The Philippines' foreign minister called for "restraint and sobriety" in the South China Sea.
"Our experts are studying this award with the care and thoroughness that this significant arbitral outcome deserves," Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay told a news conference.
"We call on all those concerned to exercise restraint and sobriety. The Philippines strongly affirms its respect for this milestone decision."
In its hard-hitting ruling, the PCA said Beijing "had no historic rights to resources in the waters of the South China Sea" and that "such rights were extinguished to the extent they were incompatible with the exclusive economic zones provided for in the Convention", referring to the UN Law of the Sea.
"China had violated the Philippines' sovereign rights in the exclusive economic zone by interfering with Philippine fishing and petroleum exploration, by constructing artificial islands and failing to prevent Chinese fishermen from fishing in the zone," the PCA said.
The tribunal further ruled that the disputed Spratly islands "cannot generate maritime zones collectively as unit" as claimed by China.
Taiwan said Tuesday it does not accept a tribunal's ruling on the South China Sea, saying the decision on Itu Aba (also known as Taiping Island), Taipei's sole holding in the disputed Spratly Islands, had "seriously impaired" its territorial rights.
Taiwan, formally known as the "Republic of China", is also a claimant in the South China Sea. The maps China bases its South China Sea claims on date to when Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists ruled China before they fled to Taiwan in 1949 after losing a civil war to Mao Zedong's Communists.
Manila had challenged the legality of China's claims to virtually the entire South China Sea, in part by arguing that no reefs, atolls or islets in the Spratly archipelago can legally be considered an island, and therefore hold no rights to a 200 nautical mile (370 km) exclusive economic zone.
Itu Aba is the biggest feature in the Spratlys and the one some analysts believed had the strongest claim to island status and an economic zone. The Spratlys are also claimed by China, Vietnam and Malaysia while Brunei claims nearby waters.
Tuesday's judgment comes against the backdrop of frequent military brushes between China and its Asian neighbours the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan, which ring the waters believed to hold untapped oil and gas reserves.
The tensions have also alarmed the United States which has key defence treaties with many regional allies, and in a show of strength last week sent warships to patrol close to some of the reefs and islands claimed by China.
New Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte had said he was optimistic of a favourable ruling, but offered to hold conciliatory talks with China and vowed he would not "taunt or flaunt" any favourable ruling.
Referring to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, Manila contended the "nine-dash" line had no basis under international law and that Beijing had no "historic" claim to the waters.
Vietnam welcomed the ruling, saying it strongly supports peaceful resolution of disputes, while reasserting its own sovereignty claims.
"Vietnam welcomes the arbitration court issuing its final ruling," foreign ministry spokesman, Le Hai Binh, said in a statement. "Vietnam strongly supports the resolution of the disputes in the South China Sea by peaceful means, including diplomatic and legal processes and and refraining from the use or threats to use force, in accordance with international law."
The ministry said it would issue a more detailed comment on the content of the ruling at a later time and reasserted Vietnam's claim of sovereignty over the Paracel and Spratly island, and its jurisdiction over its Exclusive Economic Zone.
The Hague tribunal ruling on the South China Sea is final and legally binding, and the parties to the case are required to comply, Japan said on Tuesday.
Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida said in a statement that Japan has consistently advocated the importance of the rule of law and the use of peaceful means, not the use of force or coercion, in seeking settlement of maritime disputes.
The United States urged all parties to avoid provocative statements or actions.
"The decision today by the Tribunal in the Philippines-China arbitration is an important contribution to the shared goal of a peaceful resolution to disputes in the South China Sea," State Department spokesman John Kirby said in a statement. He urged parties to comply with the legally binding ruling and avoid provocations.
In a statement released on Tuesday, Malaysia called for the implementation of the ruling.
“Malaysia believes that it important to maintain peace, security and stability through the exercise of self-restraint in the conduct of activities that may further complicate disputes or escalate tension, and avoid the threat or use of force in the South China Sea,” the statement said.
Malaysia also lays claim to territory in the South China Sea, which it says falls within its economic exclusion zone.
In China, social media users reacted with outrage at the ruling.
"It was ours in the past, is now and will remain so in the future," wrote one user on microblogging site Weibo. "Those who encroach on our China's territory will die no matter how far away they are."
Spreading fast on social media in the Philippines was the use of the term "Chexit" - the public's desire for Chinese vessels to leave the waters.