The Hague ruling: A close look at what the judgment says about key areas of contention

Locations of disputed places in South China Sea.
Locations of disputed places in South China Sea.STRAITS TIMES GRAPHICS

The Philippines has sought, among other things, a ruling on whether certain maritime features claimed by both China and the Philippines are islands, rocks or low tide elevations under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos).

THE HAGUE: The arbitral tribunal at the Hague has issued its ruling on the Philippines' case against China in the South China Sea, based on the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos). Here are the latest on its findings on key areas of contention:

THE NINE-DASH LINE

The ruling: There is no legal basis for China to claim historic rights to resources within the sea areas falling within the ‘nine-dash line’. 

What is it: It is a line, first drawn in 1947, that marks the boundaries of China’s claims over two-thirds of the 3.5 million sq km South China Sea.

What was at stake: China’s claims within this nine-dash line overlap with four Asean countries including the Philippines, as well as Taiwan. The “nine-dash line” claim overlaps with the Philippines' 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

Manila says China’s claims to sovereign rights and jurisdiction, and “historic rights”, to the areas with the line are contrary to Unclos. If this is the case, then, for the nine-dash line to be legal,  the tribunal has to rule that the land forms occupied by China are islands that can sustain human habitation or economic life on their own, thus entitled to EEZs large enough to fill out the areas within the line.

SCARBOROUGH SHOAL

The ruling: The Tribunal rules that Scarborough Shoal is a high-tide feature entitled to a 12-nautical mile territorial sea. It held that fishermen from the Philippines (like those from China) had traditional fishing rights at Scarborough Shoal, and that China had interfered with these rights in restricting access.

What is it: This atoll lies just 230km off the Philippines’ coast and within its 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

In 2012, China wrested control of Scarborough and has since then prevented Philippine fishermen from fishing there. 

 
 

What was at stake: Manila wants the tribunal to rule that: the atoll alone cannot sustain economic activity and so has no right to an EEZ; China has unlawfully prevented Philippine fishermen from pursuing their livelihoods there; China violates its obligations under Unclos to protect and preserve the marine environment.

Manila claims that destructive fishing practices carried out by Chinese fishermen brought about permanent damage on coral reefs and marine life. Under Unclos,  the coastal state has full rights to all natural resources for 200 nautical miles around.

MISCHIEF, SUBI, GAVEN, MCKENNAN REEFS, AND SECOND THOMAS SHOAL

The ruling: The Tribunal rules that Gaven and McKennan Reefs in the Spratlys are high tide features entitled to a 12-nautical mile territorial sea. 

It finds that Subi Reef, Mischief Reef, and Second Thomas Shoal in the Spratlys are submerged at high tide in their natural condition, which means they are low-tide elevations not entitled to territorial seas.

What are these: These are reefs and atolls within the Spratly chain of islands. China occupies and has built artificial islands on Mischief and Subi while the Philippines maintains a sentry of Marines on a beached World War II transport ship on Second Thomas. China has blockaded Second Thomas before to prevent supplies from reaching the Philippine troops.

What was at stake: The Philippines contends that these are low-tide elevations, that is, rocks that are not visible at high tide. As such, under Unclos, they are not entitled to a 12-nautical mile territorial sea or EEZ. If these are ruled as low-tide elevations, they will implicitly invalidate the nine-dash line as they will have no maritime zones.

FIERY CROSS, JOHNSON AND CUARTERON REEFS

The ruling: The Tribunal rules that  Johnson Reef, Cuarteron Reef, and Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratlys are high-tide features entitled to a 12-nautical mile territorial water.

What are these: These are reefs occupied by China but also claimed by the Philippines. China has also reclaimed islands on these reefs and built lighthouses on them. There is an airstrip on Fiery Cross. Two other airstrips are near completion on Mischief and Subi.

What was at stake: The Philippines contends that these reefs, while visible at high tide, cannot sustain economic life, and are therefore entitled to only a territorial sea of 12 nautical miles. Again, this would go towards invalidating China’s nine-dash line.

ITU ABA

The ruling: It is legally a “rock” that does not generate an exclusive economic zone or continental shelf. 

What is it: A 48ha land mass within the Spratlys that Taiwan occupies and also claimed by China.

What was at stake: While not referred to in its written submission, the Philippines in an oral argument at the tribunal said that Itu Aba cannot sustain economic activity and therefore is not entitled to an EEZ.

Its gambit was that if Itu Aba as the largest natural land formation in the Spratlys cannot be considered an island, then none of the land features in the chain can be considered as one.

Taiwan through a government-linked civil group early this year wrote to the tribunal to argue that Itu Aba is entitled to an EEZ and the tribunal has said it will consider this intervention. Itu Aba’s EEZ will extend all the way to the coast of the Philippines’ Palawan province.