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The South China Sea Saga Continues*

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Introduction

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..