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International Court to Rule on Maritime Dispute in the South China Sea

July 8, 2016 | BY Jim Garamone

An international arbitral tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands will soon rule on the interpretation of international law governing maritime claims in the South China Sea, and American officials urged China to accept the court’s ruling, a senior Defense Department official told Congress yesterday.

The Permanent Court of Arbitration will decide a case brought by the Philippines in 2013 over the Scarborough Shoals. Both the Philippines and China claim sovereignty over the area.

Maintaining Sea Lines of Communication

The United States is interested in maintaining the sea lines of communication through international waterways and airways, Abraham M. Denmark, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for East Asia, said at a joint hearing of two subcommittees of the House Armed Services Committee here.

The court’s ruling will mark an important crossroads for the region, Denmark said. “It will present an opportunity for those in the region to determine whether the Asia-Pacific’s future will be defined by adherence to international laws and norms that have enabled it to prosper or that the region’s future will be determined by raw calculations of power,” he added.

160526-N-MY174-032
SOUTH CHINA SEA  (May 26, 2016) USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74) departs Manila, Philippines, after a port call. Providing a ready force supporting security and stability in the Indo-Asia-Pacific, John C. Stennis is operating as part of the Great Green Fleet on a regularly scheduled 7th Fleet deployment. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Tomas Compian/Released)
160526-N-MY174-032 SOUTH CHINA SEA (May 26, 2016) USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74) departs Manila, Philippines, after a port call. Providing a ready force supporting security and stability in the Indo-Asia-Pacific, John C. Stennis is operating as part of the Great Green Fleet on a regularly scheduled 7th Fleet deployment. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Tomas Compian/Released)
160526-N-MY174-032
SOUTH CHINA SEA  (May 26, 2016) USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74) departs Manila, Philippines, after a port call. Providing a ready force supporting security and stability in the Indo-Asia-Pacific, John C. Stennis is operating as part of the Great Green Fleet on a regularly scheduled 7th Fleet deployment. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Tomas Compian/Released)
160526-N-MY174-032
160526-N-MY174-032 SOUTH CHINA SEA (May 26, 2016) USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74) departs Manila, Philippines, after a port call. Providing a ready force supporting security and stability in the Indo-Asia-Pacific, John C. Stennis is operating as part of the Great Green Fleet on a regularly scheduled 7th Fleet deployment. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Tomas Compian/Released)
Photo By: Seaman Tomas Compian
VIRIN: 160526-N-MY174-032

China and the Philippines are two of claimants of areas in the South China Sea, said Denmark, noting other nations with claims in the area include Brunei, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and Taiwan. China, he told the joint panel, has said it will not accept the court’s ruling.

The South China Sea is a critical world crossroads, with trillions of dollars’ worth of goods transiting through the region. The U.S. Navy has patrolled the sea since World War II, creating the stability that has allowed the nations of the region to prosper, Denmark said. “It is central to our strategy of strengthening a principled, rules-based order that enables regional stability and prosperity,” he said.

China is seeking to assert its claims through occupation -- literally building islands in the Spratly Islands and placing airfields, harbors and logistics hubs that could support military aircraft and ships, Denmark said.

Working to Ensure Peace, Stability in Region

The United States is pursuing a whole-of-government approach to resolving the problems in the region, he said, noting that the Defense Department is working with the State Department and others to ensure peace and stability.

Denmark said DoD is working along four lines of effort in the South China Sea. The first is presence. The United States has a credible, powerful capability in the region, he said, that creates stability and provides the space for diplomacy. “We’ve increased our military presence and we’re ensuring our presence is geographically distributed, operationally resilient and politically sustainable,” he added.

The second line of effort is an increase in the tempo of military operations in the region, he told the panel. Exercises, freedom of navigation exercises and presence operations mean DoD continues to fly, sail and operate “wherever international law allows so that others can do the same,” Denmark said.

DoD is also working with partner nations to enhance their capabilities and capacity, particularly through work with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Denmark said.

“Finally, we are engaging China directly to reduce risk. … We seek to keep lines of communication with Beijing open and improve our cooperation in areas of mutual interest and to speak candidly and constructively when we disagree,” he said.

(Follow Jim Garamone on Twitter: @GaramoneDoDNews)