A ruling by an obscure tribunal in the Hague on July 12 has become a test of the ability of international law to check a rising power’s ambitions:
WHAT DID THE COURT DECIDE?
In a case lodged by the Philippines in 2013, the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled that China’s historic claims to the South China Sea, a vital waterway also contested by Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei, had “no legal basis.” Chinese-controlled reefs and rocks, which Beijing has turned into militarized artificial islands, cannot be used to claim rights over the surrounding sea.
HOW DID CHINA REACT?
Beijing, which boycotted the proceedings, called the tribunal a “political farce.” The U.S., long a keeper of peace in the Pacific, urged China to heed the ruling. But the panel’s decision is not enforceable.
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?
Tensions look set to build. A wounded China may build a military outpost off the Philippine coast, while Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe aims to use a new electoral mandate to push for a constitutional change that would allow for a stronger military presence nearby. Regional waters may remain troubled.
This appears in the July 25, 2016 issue of TIME.