Graphic: Rock or island? Status of these features in South China Sea to be decided in The Hague ruling

Disputed waters in South China Sea


Why the fuss over whether it is rock or island?

Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos) only “a naturally formed area of land above water at high tide” that can support human or economic life can be considered an island, entitled to a 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and continental shelf of its own. Within an EEZ, the state has full rights to all natural resources for 200 nautical miles around.

Rocks, naturally formed areas of land surrounded by and above water at high tide, are entitled to only a 12-nautical mile territorial sea because they are not capable of sustaining human habitation or economic activities.

A low-tide elevation is a naturally formed area of land above water a low tide but submerged at high tide. It is not entitled to any maritime zone.

The Philippines in its arbitration case against China is seeking, among other things, a ruling on whether certain maritime features, claimed by both China and the Philippines are islands, rocks, or low-tide elevations.

The features are Fiery Cross Reef, Cuarterton Reef, Gaven Reef, Johnson Reef, McKennan Reef, Mischief Reef, Subi Reef, Scarborough Shoal, and Second Thomas Shoal.

Manila argues that some of these features are “rocks” incapable of sustaining human habitation or economic life of their own. These include Scarborough Shoal, Johnson Reef, Carterton Reef and Fiery Cross Reef, as well as Itu Aba, the biggest natural island in the Spratlys, occupied by Taiwan and mentioned by the Philippines in its oral argument.

Manila wants the other features to be classified as low-tide elevations not entitled to any maritime zone.

Sources: Centre for International Law (NUS), Council on Foreign Affairs and AFP

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