The South China Sea Arbitration: Bindingness, Finality, and Compliance with UNCLOS Dispute Settlement Decisions
On 12 July 2016, the Tribunal in the South China Sea arbitration issued its final award. China rejected the ruling as ‘null and void’. The Philippines dismissed it as ‘a piece of paper’ after initially hailing the ruling a ‘milestone decision’. The reactions of the parties concerned raise important questions about the bindingness, finality, and state compliance with UNCLOS dispute settlement decisions. This paper addresses these questions by dissecting China’s arguments that the award “has no binding force” and by examining the options available for promoting compliance with the award. The paper also considers the broader question of how states generally comply with UNCLOS dispute settlement decisions and evaluates the significance of UNCLOS dispute settlement mechanisms, including the South China Sea arbitration, in the absence of external enforcement.