On 20 August 2015, the International Law Association hosted a presentation delivered by Dr Alison Pert (University of Sydney) at the offices of Marque Lawyers in Sydney. The focus of the presentation was China’s recent island-building activities in the South China Sea, but there were also some musings on the effect that these, as well as Russia’s activities in Ukraine, may have on international law and the UN Charter‘s framework for maintaining international peace and security. Below is a summary of Dr Pert’s presentation, prepared by the ILA.

The South China Sea is of great strategic importance, being the shortest route between the Pacific and Indian Oceans; it is a major shipping route and over half the world’s oil tanker traffic passes through it.

China has two types of claims in the South China Sea — one generic and the other specific.  China’s specific claims include the Paracel Islands and Spratly Islands, which are comprised of hundreds of historically uninhabited islands, atolls and reefs.

In its generic claim, China claims ‘sovereignty’ over almost the whole of the South China Sea, based on maps that show an incomplete line of 11 (subsequently 9 and 10) dashes.  China has never explained the precise nature of its generic claim — whether it is meant to be a claim to a vast territorial sea, an exclusive economic zone, or only the land territory within the lines.  China is a party to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and any claim to an exorbitant territorial sea or EEZ would be inconsistent with that treaty.

In its specific claim, China claims a territorial sea of 12 nautical miles, as provided for in UNCLOS, but from straight baselines and in some cases hundreds of kilometres from the coast. This is not permitted by the UNCLOS regime.

Both of China’s claims are vigorously contested by other states in the region, especially the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and Taiwan.  The Philippines is currently challenging the validity of the ‘9-dash’ claim in arbitral proceedings under UNCLOS, and a decision on jurisdiction and admissibility is due before the end of this year.

The basis of Chinas claims has not been explicitly laid out. Drawing from different sources, it appears to include ‘historic title’ to all the islands in the South China Sea and various activities over the centuries, including:

  • the discovery and naming of the islands;
  • boat-building, naval expeditions and voyages;
  • developing knowledge of geographical and natural features;
  • the opening of sea lanes (by marking safe routes on charts);
  • conducting naval patrols as far back as 200–300 CE;
  • conducting scientific surveys, mapping and fishing;
  • placing islands under government administration (1127–1279); and
  • ‘other acts of sovereignty’, such as the installation of facilities for fishing, forecasting and navigation, the rescue of vessels, the issuing of licences to private companies in relation to natural resources and large scale fishing.

These territorial claims may or may not be valid; the activities cited by China are indeed examples of the kinds of governmental acts (‘prescription’) that have successfully established title to territory elsewhere.  But it is necessary that prescription is ‘peaceful’, meaning that it is without objection from competing claims. This may be difficult for China to establish.

What is of more concern is that rather than test those claims in a court or tribunal, China has been constructing large-scale military outposts on many of these islands and reefs.  This might be a breach of international law if any of those islands or reefs are, or are within, another state’s territory.  Even if they are not, China is behaving aggressively to any aircraft or vessels flying over or sailing through the waters of these islands and reefs, demanding that they turn back or go around the claimed Chinese territory.  This too is contrary to international law in most cases.  If a maritime feature is above water at high tide, and is naturally formed, it is an island as defined in UNCLOS and has its own territorial sea and contiguous zone.  If it is also capable of sustaining human habitation or economic life on its own (few of these ‘islands’ are so capable), it is additionally entitled to a 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and a 200 nautical mile continental shelf (the creation of artificial islands is not prohibited per se but they generate no maritime zones).  But even warships have the right of innocent passage through the territorial sea, and both shipping and aircraft have freedom of navigation through or over the EEZ.  The concern is that China will use its new military facilities to enforce its claims to sovereignty and impede freedom of navigation.

China is not complying with UNCLOS in at least one other respect.  It has drawn long straight baselines around each group of islands, claiming all the enclosed waters as internal waters and greatly extending the resulting territorial sea, EEZ and continental shelf.  UNCLOS permits this only for archipelagic states (which China is not), and only where the ratio of water to land within those lines is 9:1 or below (and it is not).

The presentation concluded with the suggestion that while paying lip-service to international law, China is violating it in numerous ways.  It was noted, as a point of comparison, that Russia’s activities in Ukraine have clearly violated the international law principle of non-intervention and, at times, the prohibition on the use of force.  As permanent members of the Security Council, China and Russia would of course veto any resolution condemning them.  There is a risk that the rule of (international) law is being seriously undermined, with consequences for the credibility and future of the UN collective security system.