Today, in the South China Sea Arbitration Award (12 July 2016) an arbitral tribunal at The Hague ruled that China’s claim to historic rights to resources was incompatible with the detailed allocation of rights and maritime zones in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The Tribunal considered that prior to the Convention, the waters of the South China Sea beyond the territorial sea were legally part of the high seas, in which vessels from any State could freely navigate and fish. Accordingly, the Tribunal concluded that historical navigation and fishing by China in the waters of the South China Sea represented the exercise of high seas freedoms, rather than a historic right, and that there was no evidence that China had historically exercised exclusive control over the waters of the South China Sea or prevented other States from exploiting their resources. See for more information: the Peace Palace Library Special South China Sea Territorial Disputes

CNN Hongkong brought the news as: Court rules in favor of Philippines over China Viewed as a decisive win for the Philippines, the ruling could heighten friction in a region already bristling with tension, especially if it unleashes a defiant reaction from China. The United States, which has been at odds with China over freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, urged all parties "to avoid provocative statements and actions." (by Katie Hunt, July 12, 2016)

The Chinese president, Xi Jinping, said China’s “territorial sovereignty and marine rights” in the seas would not be affected by the ruling, which declared large areas of the sea to be neutral international waters or the exclusive economic zones of other countries. He insisted China was still “committed to resolving disputes” with its neighbours.

The ‘Nine-Dash Line’ and China’s Claim to Historic Rights in the Maritime Areas of the South China Sea

In its Award of 12 July 2016, the Tribunal considered the implications of China’s ‘nine-dash line’ and whether China has historic rights to resources in the South China Sea beyond the limits of the maritime zones that it is entitled to pursuant to the Convention. The Tribunal examined the history of the Convention and its provisions concerning maritime zones and concluded that the Convention was intended to comprehensively allocate the rights of States to maritime areas. The Tribunal found that China’s claim to historic rights to resources was incompatible with the detailed allocation of rights and maritime zones in the Convention and concluded that, to the extent China had historic rights to resources in the waters of the South China Sea, such rights were extinguished by the entry into force of the Convention to the extent they were incompatible with the Convention’s system of maritime zones.
The Tribunal also examined the historical record to determine whether China actually had historic rights to resources in the South China Sea prior to the entry into force of the Convention. The Tribunal noted that there is evidence that Chinese navigators and fishermen, as well as those of other States, had historically made use of the islands in the South China Sea, although the Tribunal emphasized that it was not empowered to decide the question of sovereignty over the islands. However, the Tribunal considered that prior to the Convention, the waters of the South China Sea beyond the territorial sea were legally part of the high seas, in which vessels from any State could freely navigate and fish. Accordingly, the Tribunal concluded that historical navigation and fishing by China in the waters of the South China Sea represented the exercise of high seas freedoms, rather than a historic right, and that there was no evidence that China had historically exercised exclusive control over the waters of the South China Sea or prevented other States from exploiting their resources.
Accordingly, the Tribunal concluded that, as between the Philippines and China, there was no legal basis for China to claim historic rights to resources, in excess of the rights provided for by the Convention, within the sea areas falling within the ‘nine-dash line’

The Status of Features in the South China Sea

In its Award of 12 July 2016, the Tribunal considered the status of features in the South China Sea and the entitlements to maritime areas that China could potentially claim pursuant to the Convention. The Tribunal first undertook a technical evaluation as to whether certain coral reefs claimed by China are or are not above water at high tide. Under Articles 13 and 121 of the Convention, features that are above water at high tide generate an entitlement to at least a 12 nautical mile territorial sea, whereas features that are submerged at high tide generate no entitlement to maritime zones. The Tribunal noted that many of the reefs in the South China Sea have been heavily modified by recent land reclamation and construction and recalled that the Convention classifies features on the basis of their natural condition. The Tribunal appointed an expert hydrographer to assist it in evaluating the Philippines’ technical evidence and relied heavily on archival materials and historical hydrographic surveys in evaluating the features. The Tribunal agreed with the Philippines that Scarborough Shoal, Johnson Reef, Cuarteron Reef, and Fiery Cross Reef are high-tide features and that Subi Reef, Hughes Reef, Mischief Reef, and Second Thomas Shoal were submerged at high tide in their natural condition. However, the Tribunal disagreed with the Philippines regarding the status of Gaven Reef (North) and McKennan Reef and concluded that both are high tide features.BlogSCSJohnsonReef

The Tribunal then considered whether any of the features claimed by China could generate an entitlement to maritime zones beyond 12 nautical miles. Under Article 121 of the Convention, islands generate an entitlement to an exclusive economic zone of 200 nautical miles and to a continental shelf, but “[r]ocks which cannot sustain human habitation or economic life of their own shall have no exclusive economic zone or continental shelf.” The Tribunal noted that this provision was closely linked to the expansion of coastal State jurisdiction with the creation of the exclusive economic zone and was intended to prevent insignificant features from generating large entitlements to maritime zones that would infringe on the entitlements of inhabited territory or on the high seas and the area of the seabed reserved for the common heritage of mankind. The Tribunal interpreted Article 121 and concluded that the entitlements of a feature depend on (a) the objective capacity of a feature, (b) in its natural condition, to sustain either (c) a stable community of people or (d) economic activity that is neither dependent on outside resources nor purely extractive in nature.
The Tribunal noted that many of the features in the Spratly Islands are currently controlled by one or another of the littoral States, which have constructed installations and maintain personnel there.

The Tribunal concluded that the current presence of official personnel on many of the features does not establish their capacity, in their natural condition, to sustain a stable community of people and considered that historical evidence of habitation or economic life was more relevant to the objective capacity of the features. The Tribunal concluded that temporary use of the features by fishermen did not amount to inhabitation by a stable community and that all of the historical economic activity had been extractive in nature. Accordingly, the Tribunal concluded that all of the high-tide features in the Spratly Islands (including, for example, Itu Aba, Thitu, West York Island, Spratly Island, North-East Cay, South-West Cay) are legally “rocks” that do not generate an exclusive economic zone or continental shelf.

Chinese Activities in the South China Sea

In its Award of 12 July 2016, the Tribunal considered the lawfulness under the Convention of various Chinese actions in the South China Sea.
Having found that Mischief Reef, Second Thomas Shoal and Reed Bank are submerged at high tide, form part of the exclusive economic zone and continental shelf of the Philippines, and are not overlapped by any possible entitlement of China, the Tribunal concluded that the Convention is clear in allocating sovereign rights to the Philippines with respect to sea areas in its exclusive economic zone. The Tribunal found as a matter of fact that China had (a) interfered with Philippine petroleum exploration at Reed Bank, (b) purported to prohibit fishing by Philippine vessels within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, (c) protected and failed to prevent Chinese fishermen from fishing within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone at Mischief Reef and Second Thomas Shoal, and (d) constructed installations and artificial islands at Mischief Reef without the authorization of the Philippines. The Tribunal therefore concluded that China had violated the Philippines’ sovereign rights with respect to its exclusive economic zone and continental shelf.

Although the Tribunal emphasized that it was not deciding sovereignty over Scarborough Shoal, it found that China had violated its duty to respect to the traditional fishing rights of Philippine fishermen by halting access to the Shoal after May 2012. The Tribunal noted, however, that it would reach the same conclusion with respect to the traditional fishing rights of Chinese fishermen if the Philippines were to prevent fishing by Chinese nationals at Scarborough Shoal.

A significant aspect of the territorial dispute in the South China Sea concerns China's construction in the area, particularly in the past few years. China has engaged in large-scale land reclamation activities in seven reefs (Fiery Cross Reef, Johnson South Reef, Cuarteron Reef, Gaven Reef, Hughes Reef, Mischief Reef and Subi Reef) in the disputed Spratly Islands area of the South China Sea. These projects have created seven new artificial land masses in the Spratlys, see for some examples the following articles: Massive island-building and international law and What China Has Been Building in the South China Sea

The Tribunal also considered the effect of China’s actions on the marine environment. In doing so, the Tribunal was assisted by three independent experts on coral reef biology who were appointed to assist it in evaluating the available scientific evidence and the Philippines’ expert reports. The Tribunal found that China’s recent large scale land reclamation and construction of artificial islands at seven features in the Spratly Islands has caused severe harm to the coral reef environment and that China has violated its obligation under Articles 192 and 194 of the Convention to preserve and protect the marine environment with respect to fragile ecosystems and the habitat of depleted, threatened, or endangered species.

Finally, the Tribunal considered the lawfulness of the conduct of Chinese law enforcement vessels at Scarborough Shoal on two occasions in April and May 2012 when Chinese vessels had sought to physically obstruct Philippine vessels from approaching or gaining entrance to the Shoal. The Tribunal found that Chinese law enforcement vessels had repeatedly approached the Philippine vessels at high speed and sought to cross ahead of them at close distances, creating serious risk of collision and danger to Philippine ships and personnel. The Tribunal concluded that China had breached its obligations under the Convention on the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea, 1972, and Article 94 the Convention concerning maritime safety.

Aggravation of the Dispute between the Parties

The Tribunal noted that China has (a) built a large artificial island on Mischief Reef, a low-tide elevation located in the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines; (b) caused permanent, irreparable harm to the coral reef ecosystem and (c) permanently destroyed evidence of the natural condition of the features in question. The Tribunal concluded that China had violated its obligations to refrain from aggravating or extending the Parties’ disputes during the pendency of the settlement process.

The Tribunal considered that the root of the disputes at issue in this arbitration lies not in any intention on the part of China or the Philippines to infringe on the legal rights of the other, but rather in fundamentally different understandings of their respective rights under the Convention in the waters of the South China Sea. Scarborough-Shoal_2190232b

[This unanimous Award has been issued today by the Tribunal constituted under Annex VII to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (the “Convention”) in the arbitration instituted by the Republic of the Philippines against the People’s Republic of China].

Source : PCA Press Release: PCA Case No. 2013-19 - The South China Sea Arbitration (The Republic of the Philippines v. The People's Republic of China)

"Although the Convention does contain provisions concerning the delimitation of maritime boundaries, China made a declaration in 2006 to exclude maritime boundary delimitation from its acceptance of compulsory dispute settlement, something the Convention expressly permits for maritime boundaries and certain other matters. Accordingly, the Tribunal has not been asked to, and does not purport to, delimit any maritime boundary between the Parties or involving any other State bordering on the South China Sea."

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A selection of relevant publications from the Peace Palace Library collection

Territorial Disputes in the South China Sea: Selective Bibliography

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