THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — A tribunal ruled in a sweeping decision Tuesday that China has no legal basis for its vast claims in the South China Sea and had aggravated the seething regional dispute with its extensive construction of artificial islands that destroyed coral reefs and infringed on the Philippines' exclusive economic zone.
China immediately rejected the arbitration findings, and their impact remained unclear as there is no policing agency or mechanism to enforce them.
While the ruling cannot reverse China's actions, it still constitutes a rebuke, carrying with it the force of the international community's opinion. It also gives heart to small countries in Asia that have helplessly chafed at China's expansionism, backed by its military and economic power.
"The Philippines strongly affirms its respect for this milestone decision as an important contribution to ongoing efforts in addressing disputes in the South China Sea," Philippine Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay said in Manila.
He pledged to pursue a peaceful resolution of his country's territorial disputes with China.
China and the Philippines are among six governments that have overlapping territorial claims in the South China Sea, waters through which an estimated $5 trillion in global trade passes through each year and which have rich fishing stocks and a potential wealth of oil, gas and other resources.
The disputes have also increased friction between China and the United States, which has ramped up its military presence in the region as China has expanded its navy's reach farther offshore.
The Philippines, under a U.N. treaty governing the seas, asked in 2013 for arbitration on a number of issues it had with China.
A five-member panel, meeting in The Hague, Netherlands, unanimously concluded that China had violated its obligations to refrain from aggravating the dispute while the settlement process was ongoing.
It also found that China had interfered with Philippine petroleum exploration at Reed Bank, tried to stop fishing by Philippine vessels within the country's exclusive economic zone and failed to prevent Chinese fishermen from fishing within the Philippines' exclusive economic zone at Mischief Reef and Second Thomas Shoal.
China, which boycotted the entire proceedings, reiterated that it does not accept the panel's jurisdiction. China "solemnly declares that the award is null and void and has no binding force. China neither accepts nor recognizes it," a statement from the foreign ministry said.
It added that "China's territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests in the South China Sea shall under no circumstances be affected by those awards." The ministry repeated China's often-expressed stance that the Philippines' move to initiate arbitration without China's consent was in "bad faith" and in violation of international law.
A professor of Asian political economy said the ruling could be a "transformative moment" in the region.
Speaking outside the Peace Palace in The Hague, Leiden University professor Jonathan London said the decision will "give countries with a common interest in international norms something to point to and to rally around."
He said they can say to China: "Look, here are the results of an international organization that has found that your claims have zero historical basis."
Japan's Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida said the tribunal's decision is "final and legally binding" and that the two sides should comply with it. He said in a statement that "Japan strongly expects that the parties' compliance with this award will eventually lead to the peaceful settlement of disputes in the South China Sea."
China considers bilateral talks with the other claimants the only way to address the South China Sea disputes.
It has said vast areas of the South China Sea were historically Chinese territory and has based its modern claims on the so-called nine-dash line, a map demarcating its claims that was last revised in 1953. Manila brought the case because China's claims infringe upon its own 200-mile exclusive economic zone.
The tribunal said that any historical resource rights China may have had were wiped out if they are incompatible with exclusive economic zones established under the U.N. treaty, which both countries have signed.
It also criticized China for building a large artificial island on Mischief Reef, saying it caused "permanent irreparable harm" to the coral reef ecosystem and permanently destroyed evidence of the natural conditions of the feature.
Dozens of rallying Filipinos jumped for joy, wept, embraced each other and waved Philippine flags after news of the sweeping victory broke out. One held up a poster that said: "Philippine sovereignty, non-negotiable."
The new Philippine leader, who took office late last month and has spoken of having friendlier relations with Beijing, could influence the aftermath of the ruling. President Rodrigo Duterte said last week his government stood ready to talk to China if it gets a favorable ruling. It remains to be seen, however, how far Duterte can stray from Manila's previously critical stance toward China's actions, given his country's growing nationalist sentiment against China's actions.
Vietnam, meanwhile, accused Chinese vessels of sinking a Vietnamese fishing boat in disputed waters. Nguyen Thanh Hung, a local fisheries executive in the central province of Quang Ngai, said two Chinese vessels chased and sank the Vietnamese boat around midday Saturday as it was fishing near the Paracel islands. The five fishermen were rescued by another trawler around seven hours later.
Vietnam later Tuesday issued a statement welcoming the ruling in the Philippines' case.