The Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) at The Hague international court legal decision caught the United States by surprise. The legal ruling’s scope and focus was not fully anticipated by the Obama Administration. In contrast, China’s reaction, especially Xi Jinping and the military leadership, view the PCA decision as an secret American effort to undermine China’s so-called legitimate claim of sovereignty over the South China Sea.

It is anticipated by the United States that other “claimant states” will pursue individual legal suits against China. China will continue to press it claims on its “core interests.” The PCA ruling is unmistakeable clear—there is no legal basis for China’s expansive claim and building military facilities on the contested land-formations, being categorized as rock or island, is now completely illegal based on international law.

On the surface, the legal ruling handed by the PCA supports the U.S. policy on the South China Sea disputes. It also makes clear (whether accepted by China or not) that the United States did not take sides in what country has sovereignty over the disputed “landforms” and the PCA did not have the authority for defining sovereignty of the South China Sea.

The U.S. would prefer a diplomatic and legal solution to the disputed claims and respect for the freedom of navigation and overflight as a principle of international law. Undergirding the PCA decision, the U.S. continued call for all claimant states to respect international law and especially the United Nations Convention of the Law of Sea (UNCLOS) will impact of China’s choices. Even though China’s untenable position is unsustainable, China will escalate its military operations including the potential of declaring an ADIZ.

The PCA’s decision is viewed by the United States as formal and authoritative. The U.S. assessment is the the PCA decision addresses the issue of disputes from a peaceful and legal standpoint and that legal/diplomatic procedures can now be established to resolve the other claimants disputes with China.

The condemnation of China by the court also targets the military use-related land reclamations because of the severe destruction of the natural environmental conditions including the destruction of coral reef and fishing areas in the South China Sea lagoon, one of the most lucrative fishing areas in the South China Sea.

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