On 29 October 2015, the Arbitral Tribunal constituted under Annex VII of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (“LOSC”) on the initiative of the Philippines rendered its highly anticipated Award on Jurisdiction and Admissibility in the Philippines v China case. The Tribunal found itself competent to rule on seven out of fifteen submissions lodged by the Philippines, whereas it will decide whether it has jurisdiction over the remaining submissions at the merits stage. Although the Award addresses preliminary issues it is valuable for it deals with a range of issues of particular interest with respect to international law and the law of the sea as well as because it may serve as a precursor for what will follow in the examination of the merits. In any event, the Award is another sequel to the long-standing South China Sea (“SCS”) conundrum, while definitely there is more to come.
The South China Sea dispute
In 1948, China published an atlas depicting a dotted line encompassing the entire SCS region, but it was only in the 1970s that these assertions were contested owing to the emergence of new states during the decolonization era (the states bordering the SCS are China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore and Indonesia as well as Taiwan). The situation deteriorated after China reacted via a Note Verbale in 2009 to the submission of Vietnam (a joint submission was also filed during that period by Vietnam and Malaysia) to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (“CLCS”) claiming continental shelf rights beyond the limit of 200 nautical miles (“nm”) perforce Article 76(8) of the LOSC. In its Note Verbale, China stated that it asserts sovereignty over all island formations (Pratas Islands, Paracel Islands, Scarborough Shoal, Spratly Islands) hemmed in a “nine-dash line” (or “U-shaped” or “bull’s tongue” line) illustrated in map attached to the Note and, accordingly, claims sovereign rights and jurisdiction over the waters, seabed and subsoil adjacent to those features’ coasts. This was the first time China had circulated a map depicting the “nine-dash” line through an official document. Readmore..
On the verge of the 21st century, the discovery of “Noa”, a gas field offshore Israel, reinvigorated the Eastern Mediterranean (East Med) states’ interest in the sea. Additional hydrocarbon deposits were found in the sea waters adjacent to Israel, Gaza, Cyprus and Egypt, while the United States Geological Survey estimated that the Levant Basin alone contains 1.7 million barrels of oil and 122 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. These developments made the regional states realize that, in order to avail themselves of the immense underwater wealth, they should first demarcate their maritime space in conformity with the law of the sea rules. This post analyses the maritime boundary delimitation agreements concluded so far in the East Med. It should be pointed out that these are the first EEZ delimitation agreements to have been signed in the Mediterranean Sea. Perhaps the most noteworthy features of these arrangements is the use of the median line and the adherence of Israel to the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention (LOSC or the Convention) rules on the EEZ and maritime delimitation, despite the fact that it is not a state-party to the Convention.
In particular, four East Med states proceeded with the conclusion of bilateral maritime boundary delimitation agreements; the first delimitation agreement between Egypt and Cyprus in 2003 was followed by another two between Lebanon-Cyprus in 2007 (pending ratification by Lebanon); and Israel-Cyprus in 2010. All three agreements are concise and comprise five virtually identical articles each. Undoubtedly, maritime boundary delimitation is a pivotal function within the realm of the law of the sea. As the Arbitral Tribunal in the Bangladesh/India Award stressed:
“The importance of stable and definitive maritime boundaries is all the more essential when the exploration and exploitation of the resources of the continental shelf are at stake… the sovereign rights of coastal States, and therefore the maritime boundaries between them, must be determined with precision to allow for development and investment (emphasis added).”
Even though the East Med states maintain variant positions on maritime affairs, they have perceived the utility of the law of the sea apparatus in facilitating hydrocarbon exploration and exploitation, hence they decided to act within its ambit and collaborate with a view to gaining multiple profits from the energy windfall.
[Nikolaos A. Ioannidis is a doctoral candidate in Public International Law at the University of Bristol]
Αs of October 20, a Turkish survey vessel, the “Hayreddin Barbaros Pasa”, accompanied by a frigate of the Turkish Navy, has been carrying out seismic surveys within the continental shelf and the Exclusive Economic Zone (“EEZ”) of Cyprus.The area of operarions is very close to block 9, where the Italian oil company ENI is drilling for hydrocarbons on behalf of the Republic of Cyprus. Although these activities have sparked rigorous reactions on the part of the Republic of Cyprus, the “Barbaros” has yet to terminate its operations.
Prior to analyzing the ongoing situation, I’ll begin with a short review of the legal regime of the waters under consideration. According to customary international law and the Law of the Sea Convention 1982 (“LOSC”) a coastal state maintains an inherent right to a continental shelf, which extends up to a distance of 200 nautical miles (“nm”) measured from the coast. In addition, a littoral state is also entitled to claim an EEZ of a breadth of 200nm. In these zones, the coastal state enjoys exclusive sovereign rights for the purpose of exploring and exploiting the natural resources, either living or non-living, in its seabed and subsoil (articles 58(1)(a), 77(1)(2) and 81). Consequently, no other state can set forth assertions over the natural resources in another state’s maritime zones. Nevertheless, in both the continental shelf and the EEZ the freedom of navigation shall not be hindered (articles 58(1) and 78) as those waters, in essence, form part of the high seas. This is a trade-off aiming at striking a balance between the viewpoints of the great maritime powers on the one hand (which were reluctant to concede expansion of state jurisdiction over the high seas) and the smaller states on the other hand (which sought extended maritime rights in order to safeguard the natural resources of their sea waters). Readmore..