The flag of Vietnam (red flag with a gold star) fluttering on ship in the Halong Bay at the Gulf of Tonkin of the South China Sea, Vietnam. Karst towers-isles are visible in background/Shutterstock
The flag of Vietnam (red flag with a gold star) fluttering on ship in the Halong Bay at the Gulf of Tonkin of the South China Sea, Vietnam. Karst towers-isles are visible in background/Shutterstock

The recent arbitration tribunal’s ruling on the Philippines’ case against China represents a milestone both in international law and in the politics of the South China Sea. In a sweeping, magisterial, and unequivocal decision, the tribunal has moved the goalposts, changed the channel, and put China on the defensive. From this point forward the main question will not be who owns what in the South China Sea, but who does or does not respect international law. China has rejected the decision in the strongest possible terms, with evident (and no doubt heartfelt) emotion. Whether China sticks to that script or ultimately decides that the costs of noncompliance outweigh the benefits is, of course, the $64,000 question. We will have to wait and see. Meanwhile, though, here are key some things about the decision that you may not have noticed:


When it comes to maritime rights, UNCLOS trumps all. The tribunal has made clear that other state-to-state agreements or principles of customary international law can confer maritime rights, but only if they are consistent with UNCLOS principles.Put another way: if you want to be seen to be playing by the rules, you have to be seen to be playing by UNCLOS rules. 


There are no disputed islands in the South China Sea. For purposes of international law, only features that are above water at high tide in their natural condition (i.e., not augmented by dredging and landfill), that are capable of sustaining human habitation, and that can sustain an economic life of their own count as “islands” entitled to 12-n.m. territorial seas, 200-n.m. Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs), and continental shelf rights. The tribunal ruled that none of the Spratly “Islands” meets these criteria. All are “rocks” (dry at high tide but entitled only to a 12-n.m. territorial sea) or “low-tide elevations” or “submerged features” entitled to nothing. While the Philippines case only concerned the Spratly Islands and Scarborough Shoal, the same logic would apply to any other feature under dispute.


By demonstrating mastery of UNCLOS principles elsewhere, China undermined its own case. China (as well as Taiwan, Province of China, and Korea) have vigorously objected to Japan’s claim to an EEZ around Okinotorishima, a remote atoll in the middle of the Western Pacific, on the ground that it is incapable of sustaining human habitation or an economic life of its own. The tribunal (very respectfully) used China’s own words on the subject to shoot down its claims in the Spratlys.


Allocating maritime rights in the South China Sea will now be easy (for the most part). Since none of the disputed features can confer an EEZ or continental shelf rights, littoral states’ EEZs and continental shelves can all be calculated straightforwardly from their coasts.


There are only two remaining important legal questions in the South China Sea.The first question is who owns which “rocks.” This is now far less important than people thought, because collectively the territorial seas that attach to them amount to less than 1.5 percent of the South China Sea’s 3.5 million km2. The relative unimportance of this question opens a window of opportunity for settlement; the claimants might just as well just divide them up now.The second question is whether states are entitled to conduct military surveillance missions in other countries’ EEZs. China says no; the United States and most other countries say yes. This is an important issue because this difference of interpretation frequently gives rise to dangerous encounters between ships and aircraft such as the one that led to the Hainan Island incident in 2002. The Philippines did not ask the tribunal to rule on this issue and it remains unresolved. 


The United States no longer needs to conduct Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) in the Spratly Islands. The sole point of American FONOPs was to demonstrate that the United States did not recognize any potential Chinese claim to maritime entitlements around artificial islands. The tribunal has definitively declared that China has none—at least, none that would result from land reclamation. Whether China enjoys sovereignty over this or that naturally-formed rock is an issue on which the United States takes no position. 


China’s artificial island construction is illegal—not because building artificial islands necessarily violates UNCLOS, but because of the way China has done it: by dredging up coral reefs and destroying legally-protected sensitive ecosystems.


China has built an artificial island in the Philippines’ EEZ. Oops.


By insisting that its purpose in building artificial islands was “non-military,” China inadvertently gave the tribunal jurisdiction to condemn them. UNCLOS expressly exempts military matters from mandatory arbitration, and on the one minor point on which the tribunal did not come down hard on China—the standoff between the Chinese Coast Guard and Philippine marines at the Second Thomas Shoal—it was precisely the fact that this was a military issue that led the court to declare that it did not have jurisdiction. Oops.

And the best news of all…

50 years ago, we would not be having this conversation. For most of human history, might made right on the world’s oceans. The strong did what they could, and the weak suffered as they must. No longer. At last we have a well-developed body of law on the basis of which to civilize Earth’s final frontier. Courts and public spaces are supplanting the high seas at sites of contestation. Who says there is no such thing as progress?

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.