Editor's Pick FACT CHECK NED FC South China Sea: Waters of Contention

VERA FILES FACT CHECK: US envoy to China makes two false claims on 2016 South China Sea arbitral award

The International Court of Justice ruled on the Philippines’ case against China on the South China Sea.

Nicholas Burns 2024-03-15 False

An ad hoc arbitral tribunal, not the ICJ, ruled on the case of the Philippines against China in the South China Sea.

Ayungin Shoal (international name: Second Thomas Shoal) is part of the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of the Philippines based on a 2016 arbitral ruling in the Hague, contrary to the claim of United States (U.S.) ambassador to China Nicholas Burns that it is a Philippine “sovereign territory.” 

Burns also erred in saying that the International Court of Justice (ICJ) issued the decision on the South China Sea arbitration case. 

(See VERA FILES FACT SHEET: Six misconceptions about the Philippines’ arbitral award on the South China Sea


Burns spoke at an online discussion on the current state of the U.S.-China relations with the Honolulu-based East West Center on March 15. He was asked about Beijing’s “strategic goal” in its continuously increasing pressure on the Philippines over the disputed South China Sea and “how far they will go in testing the U.S. willingness” to defend its former colony. 

The ambassador said the U.S. is “very concerned” about China’s “coercive pressure” on the Philippines, citing “tense standoffs” in the Second Thomas Shoal and Scarborough Shoal over the past few months. Beijing claims ownership of both shoals.

He added:

“[I]t’s important for everybody… [t]o understand that the International Court of Justice [ICJ], which is the relevant legal body, ruled in July 2016 decisively in favor of the Philippines. And so, that territory is a sovereign territory of the Philippines and that China’s legal basis, legal claim to it, has no basis in international law.”

Source: East-West Center, Ambassador Burns on the State of U.S.-China Relations, watch from 37:12 to 37:38 


An ad hoc arbitral tribunal, not the ICJ, ruled on the case of the Philippines against China which did not cover territorial sovereignty issues.

The Permanent Court of Arbitration, which served as the registry of the arbitral case, is an administrative body that ensures peaceful resolution of disputes on treaties and agreements, such as the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.  

On the other hand, the ICJ is the principal judicial organ of the United Nations that settles legal disputes between states according to international law.

(Read VERA FILES FACT CHECK: Which court ruled on the West Philippine Sea dispute?

VERA Files Fact Check: An ad hoc arbitral tribunal, not the ICJ, ruled on the case of the Philippines against China which did not cover territorial sovereignty issues.

In the 2016 arbitral award, the Second Thomas Shoal was declared part of the 200-nautical mile EEZ and continental shelf of the Philippines. 

A state has exclusive rights within its EEZ “to explore, exploit, conserve and manage natural resources, as well as build artificial islands, carry out environmental protection and conduct marine scientific research,” international law expert Romel Bagares explained. 

The tribunal did not rule on the status of Scarborough Shoal but clarified that it is a traditional fishing ground for the Philippines and China, among other countries.

It noted that China has “unlawfully prevented” Filipino fisherfolk from engaging in traditional fishing at Scarborough Shoal since May 2012.

(Read VERA FILES FACT CHECK: Pro-Duterte blogger makes multiple inaccurate claims on West Philippine Sea, arbitral ruling


China has repeatedly ignored the arbitral ruling, while the Philippines considers it as a reaffirmation of its claims in the West Philippine Sea.

On March 25, the Chinese Embassy in the Philippines accused resupply vessels for the crew on the grounded ship BRP Sierra Madre of “trespassing” into the waters of Ayungin Shoal. 

(Read Why China blocks bringing of construction supplies to BRP Sierra Madre in Ayungin Shoal

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Permanent Court of Arbitration, The South China Sea Arbitration, July 12, 2016

International Court of Justice, The Court | INTERNATIONAL COURT OF JUSTICE, Accessed April 3, 2024

China Embassy of the Philippines, The Chinese Embassy in the Philippines lodges representations with the Philippine side over the illegal trespassing of Philippine resupply vessels into Ren’ai Jiao waters, March 25, 2024

Reuters, Philippines accuses China of dangerous manoeuvres near Scarborough Shoal, Feb. 11, 2024

 South China Morning Post, China’s coastguard claims it drove off Philippine ship from disputed Scarborough Shoal, Feb. 22, 2024

Reuters, Philippines summons China diplomat over ‘aggressive’ actions in South China Sea | Reuters, March 4, 2024

AP News, Philippine and Chinese vessels collide in disputed South China Sea and 4 Filipino crew are injured, March 6, 2024

Al Jazeera, Philippines accuses China of new water cannon attacks in South China Sea, March 24, 2024 

(Guided by the code of principles of the International Fact-Checking Network at Poynter, VERA Files tracks the false claims, flip-flops, misleading statements of public officials and figures, and debunks them with factual evidence. Find out more about this initiative and our methodology.)