Our blog mini-series, co-hosted with the ICRC, wraps up with a post by Associate Professor Rob McLaughlin, Co-Director of the ANU Centre for Military and Security Law. Dr McLaughlin shares his reflections on common article 2 and the important question of when IHL must be applied. More
In the post-9/11 zeitgeist, the ever-present fear of terrorism has reignited debate regarding whether a State has the right of self-defence against attacks by non-State actors. As Australia targets non-State actors such as ISIS and Al-Qaeda fighters in self-defence, the legality of such actions in international law must be questioned. More
Farewell to buried treasure: Claiming proprietary rights under international law in Ure v Commonwealth — Timothy Gorton
Whilst many dream of claiming their own island slice of paradise, few would have ever done so with the same verve as Alexander Francis Ure. In 1970, Ure claimed the islands of Elizabeth and Middleton Reefs — some 80 miles north of Lord Howe Island — in order to exploit the substantial hydrocarbon deposits he believed to lie beneath. More
The ICJ’s docket grows in June 2016: an overview of Iran v US, Equatorial Guinea v France and Chile v Bolivia
This month, three contentious cases have been instituted by States in the International Court of Justice (ICJ).
This breaks a dry spell for the ICJ, where no proceedings were commenced in 2015.
International Court of Justice rules on preliminary objections in Bolivia–Chile territorial dispute — Timothy Gorton
On 24 September 2015, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) handed down judgment in the preliminary objections phase of a dispute between Bolivia and Chile. Contrary to Chile’s submissions, the ICJ determined that it had jurisdiction to consider the dispute, which concerns whether Chile is obliged to negotiate and grant sovereign access to the Pacific Ocean to the otherwise landlocked Bolivia. The proceedings are interesting not only because of the Bolivia’s intriguing claim, but also because they relate to peace treaties signed by the parties at the start of the 20th century.
Context of the dispute
As The Economist succinctly puts it, ‘Bolivia has all the trappings of a maritime power except an actual coastline’, having a merchant navy and a National Day of the Sea. Indeed, at independence in 1825, Bolivia had territorial access to the Pacific Ocean. In 1879, territorial disputes over the Atacama Desert (and the valuable mining opportunities within) led Chile to declare war on Bolivia and its ally Peru. An initial armistice between Chile and Bolivia was signed in 1884 and a final settlement was reached in 1904 (1904 Peace Treaty), under which Bolivia ceded its coastal territories and became a landlocked country. Bolivia has attempted to reclaim the territory through diplomatic means for the past century, most recently inserting its claim into its 2009 Constitution (see article 267 of the Constitución Política del Estado de Plurinacional de Bolivia).
In 1948, Bolivia and Chile signed the American Treaty on Pacific Settlement (also known as the Pact of Bogota), a treaty committing states to the peaceful resolution of disputes and conferring jurisdiction on the ICJ (under article XXXI). Relevantly, article VI of the Pact of Bogota states that the procedures established by the treaty
may not be applied to matters already settled by arrangement between the parties, or by arbitral award or by decision of an international court, or which are governed by agreements or treaties in force on the date of the conclusion of the present Treaty.
The effect of this article is to exclude from the ICJ’s jurisdiction any dispute that had been settled prior to the Pact of Bogota.
History of the proceedings — Application by Bolivia
Bolivia filed its application with the ICJ in April 2013, requesting that it make declarations that Chile is obliged to negotiate sovereign access to the Pacific Ocean for Bolivia, in good faith, and that Chile had breached this obligation. The ICJ’s jurisdiction over the dispute was based on article XXXI of the Pact of Bogota.
The substance of Chile’s obligation is founded on a number of diplomatic exchanges and resolutions since the 1904 Peace Treaty, including:
- an exchange of notes (1950) and Memorandum of Understanding (1961) between the two governments to the effect that the two states should enter into negotiations for Bolivia to be given its own access to the Pacific Ocean (Application –);
- Negotiations in 1975 between the two governments, during which Chile reaffirmed its in-principle preparedness to negotiate with Bolivia. During negotiations in 1986 Chile had rejected Bolivia’s proposals (Application –);
- A joint agenda in 2006 by the two governments on issues that included Bolivia’s maritime access (Application );
- Resolutions of the General Assembly of the Organization of American States urging the two states to negotiate coastal access for Bolivia (Application –); and
- Statements and requests by the President of Bolivia (Application –).
The effect of these events as alleged by Bolivia is that
Chile has committed itself, more specifically through agreements, diplomatic practice and a series of declarations attributable to its highest‑level representatives, to negotiate a sovereign access to the sea for Bolivia. Chile has not complied with this obligation and, what is more, at the present date Chile denies the very existence of its obligation (Application ).
History of the proceedings — Objection by Chile
Chile filed a preliminary objection to Bolivia’s application in July 2014, claiming that:
- The nature of the dispute concerns territorial sovereignty and Bolivia’s access to the Pacific;
- These are matter that were settled conclusively in the 1904 Peace Treaty, and any subsequent negotiations or statements concern the same substantial matters; and
- Consequently, the dispute is not justiciable by operation of article VI of the Pact of Bogota, which excluded disputes already settled by treaty or award.
In its response, Bolivia stated that Chile has misconstrued the subject matter of the dispute — it is about obligations to negotiate that are separate from the 1904 Peace Treaty. The judgment of the ICJ made in December concerned whether Chile’s objection was correct and what the proper subject matter of the dispute was.
Judgment of the majority
The ICJ handed down several judgments, but ruled 14–2 in favour of Bolivia, rejecting Chile’s objections. First, the majority judgment rejected Chile’s characterisation of the subject matter of the dispute. The Court determined that it is not being asked to determine the character of what Bolivia’s access to the ocean is or what the outcome of any negotiation should be. Instead, the character of the dispute is whether Chile, by its actions, has created an enforceable obligation to negotiate with Bolivia and whether Chile has breached that obligation (Majority Judgment ).
The majority rejected Chile’s second objection that the subject matter of the dispute was excluded from consideration because of article VI of the Pact of Bogota and the 1904 Peace Treaty. Chile had submitted that the 1904 Peace Treaty was a conclusive territorial settlement, that it fell into the excluded categories in article VI and this dispute, by covering the same matters, was also excluded. Bolivia had responded that the obligation and negotiations arose independently of the 1904 Peace Treaty and were therefore not excluded. Given the conclusion drawn by the majority on the characterisation of the dispute, the majority agreed with Bolivia. Bolivia’s application concerns a legal obligations created subsequent to and independent of the 1904 Peace Treaty, and therefore is not excluded by article VI (Majority Judgment ).
Additionally, the majority noted that it was satisfied that Chile’s objections were preliminary in character and could be properly addressed at an interlocutory stage. The ICJ has three options of addressing a preliminary objection: upholding it; rejecting it; or holding that it is not exclusively preliminary in character and postponing consideration of the objection to the merits phase. The majority considered that on the facts before it, it could rule whether the disputed issues had been settled by the 1904 Peace Treaty without making findings on the merits of the overall dispute. Therefore, it was suitable to dispose of Chile’s objection at this time (Majority Judgment –).
The ICJ published four other opinions. Briefly, they were:
- Declaration of Judge Bennouna — His declaration criticised two paragraphs of the main judgment , wherein the majority had provided their opinion on a Bolivian subsidiary argument. Because the Majority’s decision rendered Bolivia’s subsidiary argument moot, Bennouna considered that discussion by the majority ‘pointless’. Having rejected Chile’s objection, it had implicitly regarded it as preliminary and there was no need to consider the subsidiary argument.
- Separate Opinion of Judge Cancado Trindade — In a substantial separate opinion (that agrees with the majority’s orders), Judge Cancado Trindade gave an expanded treatment of the jurisdictional regime of the Pact of Bogota and article 79 of the ICJ Rules (which deals with preliminary objections), considering the majority’s consideration ‘far too succinct’. The separate opinion concluded that Chile’s objection is not of exclusively preliminary character and that its arguments should therefore be considered in the merits phase.
- Declaration of Judge Gaja — His declaration also noted that disposing of Chile’s objection was not an exclusively preliminary matter. Judge Gaja considered that the Court could not have made a decision on jurisdiction without examining whether the matter purportedly settled by the 1904 Peace Treaty had been subsequently ‘unsettled’. This would have required consideration of the merits of the parties’ arguments and therefore the Court should have instead ruled that the objection should be heard as part of the merits phase.
- Dissenting Opinion of Judge ad hoc Arbour — Arbour had been selected by Chile as its Judge ad hoc in the proceedings. In her dissent, she also considered that Chile’s objection was not exclusively preliminary and should have been postponed until the merits phase. In particular, she considered that the Court can only decide in the merits phase whether a Chilean obligation exists and whether the scope and content of that obligation falls within the exclusionary language of article VI.
A more substantial summary of the ICJ’s judgment and additional opinions is available here.
The ICJ has requested that Chile file its Counter-Memorial by 25 July 2016. At this time, there is no further public indication of when the Court will hear the parties’ substantive arguments. The dispute will remain of interest because of Bolivia’s unique argument that Chile has created an obligation to negotiate in good faith, and what the ICJ has to say about the existence or content of such an obligation may have ramifications for future diplomacy between states.
Timothy Gorton practices commercial litigation in Melbourne and is an Editor of the ILA Reporter. He is a former Editor of the Melbourne Journal of International Law. Any opinion expressed is the author’s alone.
In many ways, the territoriality principle represents the jurisprudential core of our current thinking on jurisdiction in both public and private international law. However, its flaws and inadequacies are increasingly obvious and its application is particularly problematic in relation to the online environment. Further, there is an increasing appreciation that, in a globalised world, State responsibilities do not end at States’ territorial borders. This is particularly clear in areas such as human rights law, environmental law and space law.
A recent symposium issue of the American Journal of International Law Unbound explores a proposal I have put forward, aimed at reforming our thinking on jurisdiction. Put succinctly, my proposition is that the proper jurisprudential core of jurisdiction in both public and private international law can be summarised in the following principles:
In the absence of an obligation under international law to exercise jurisdiction, a State may only exercise jurisdiction where:
- there is a substantial connection between the matter and the State seeking to exercise jurisdiction;
- the State seeking to exercise jurisdiction has a legitimate interest in the matter; and
- the exercise of jurisdiction is reasonable given the balance between the State’s legitimate interests and other interests.
Although these principles may not have been presented and emphasised in this way before, they are of course not new. Rather they can be found throughout the body of public and private international law.
Using these principles as our point of departure, we should construct more detailed — field of law specific — norms. In other words, these principles are not intended to be directly applied as such by the courts. Instead, they will be important as a tool in the interpretation of the mentioned field of law specific norms to which they should give rise.
Furthermore, the practical consequences of the shift from our current territoriality focus to the proposed framework, if conducted carefully and diligently, will be minimal in noncontroversial areas of jurisdiction. For example, a State would obviously have a substantial connection to, and a legitimate interest in, a traffic offence occurring within its territory. The balancing principle between that State’s legitimate interests and other interests ought not to cause any complications in such instances.
The absolute majority of cases, whether or not they involve the internet, would not augur a conflict between territoriality on the one hand, and a substantial connection and legitimate interest on the other hand. At the same time, the proposed reform would make us much better equipped to address what are now controversial areas. It would allow us to think more creatively rather than just in a mechanically binary fashion. It would, for example, free us from the thinking that a State must always have a possible jurisdictional claim over all aspects of data that happen to be located on a server located within its borders (consider e.g. the ongoing dispute between Microsoft and the US Government).
As part of the symposium issue, three internationally recognised experts — Professors Cedric Ryngaert of Utrecht University, Tom Ginsburg of University of Chicago and Horatia Muir Watt of Sciences-Po Paris — wrote insightful pieces commenting on my proposal.
I will continue working on this issue and would welcome feedback. I can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dan Jerker B Svantesson, Professor and Co-Director, Centre for Commercial Law, Faculty of Law, Bond University; Researcher, Swedish Law & Informatics Research Institute, Stockholm University; Australian Research Council Future Fellow. The views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily those of the Australian Research Council.
Last week the USS Lassen, a United States guided-missile destroyer, sailed within 12 nautical miles of a series of artificial islands built by China in the South China Sea. In response, China reportedly summoned the US Ambassador, with a state-run newspaper claiming that China was not afraid of fighting a war. China’s naval commander warned that the move was ‘dangerous and provocative’, and policy makers, officials and journalists on all sides of the dispute have debated the wisdom, or otherwise, of these actions by the US.
The latest move by the US comes in the wake of China’s actions in the previously uninhabited Spratly Island group. In late 2014, China began reclaiming land on a series of reefs, some of which were only partially exposed at low tide. In 2015, satellite images showed significant construction beginning on the reefs/islands. China based its claim over the reef/islands on the so-called ‘Nine-Dash Line’, a 1947 map drawn up by Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist government. It has been used as the basis, once in 1958, and in 2009 before the UN, in order to substantiate China’s claims.
China’s claim has not gone uncontested. Both Vietnam and the Philippines lay claim to the Spratly Island group, and some of the islands fall within the Exclusive Economic Zone of Malaysia and Brunei under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The Philippines has brought a case challenging the validity of China’s claims before an arbitral tribunal under UNCLOS. Despite China’s argument that the is over competing sovereignty claims, and so outside the remit of the arbitral body, last week the Permanent Court of Arbitration rejected this argument and will consider the case under UNCLOS (see Lea Christopher’s piece on the ILA Reporter on 5 November 2015 summarising the tribunal’s decision). However, China has pre-empted any finding, stating that it will not comply with any unfavourable ruling.
The legal issues associated with the South China Sea are complicated. There is a distinction to be made between claims that are covered by customary law and claims that are covered by the international law of the sea (predominantly contained within UNCLOS). The case of the USS Lassen is to be distinguished on this basis as well, and Shannon Tiezzi’s Diplomat analysis is instructive on the point. The recent US patrol was not concerned with challenging China’s claim to sovereignty over the islands, but rather asserting freedom of navigation, a point which the author claims has been lost among much of the news coverage.
Under UNCLOS, territorial sea extends 12 nautical miles from the shore (article 3). Within it, any ship enjoys the right of innocent passage (article 19). The circumstances that will generate territorial sea is central to the current disputes. A key provision is article 13, regarding low-tide elevations (LTEs):
Where a low-tide elevation is wholly situated at a distance exceeding the breadth of the territorial sea from the mainland or an island, it has no territorial sea of its own.
Article 60 then states that artificial islands do not have any territorial sea of their own and are only entitled to at most a 500 metre ‘safety zone’. This means that under UNCLOS, any artificial structures built by China on LTEs have no territorial sea. Whilst some of China’s construction has occurred on land not considered LTEs, the US has only conducted patrols within 12 nm of Mischief and Subi reefs, artificial islands that were previously LTEs, and so understood by the US not to have a territorial sea. By asserting their right to freedom of navigation past such structures, Tiezzi suggests the US ‘is not challenging China’s sovereignty over the Spratly features; it is challenging the status of those features under international law‘.
With many other LTEs in the region, this stand on freedom of navigation past the Spratly chain is an important test. Understanding how patrols, such as the USS Lassen’s, challenge China under the international law of the sea will be central in understanding the broader geopolitical developments in the region.
Philippines v China: Tribunal rules favourably on jurisdiction in South China Sea Arbitration – Lea Christopher
On 29 October 2015, an Arbitral Tribunal (Tribunal) issued its award on the questions of jurisdiction and admissibility in the arbitration between the Republic of Philippines and the People’s Republic of China concerning the South China Sea. In brief, the Tribunal found that it had jurisdiction to decide seven of the Philippines’ 15 substantive claims. As to the Philippines’ remaining claims, the Tribunal decided that the question of its jurisdiction needed to be deferred for further consideration in conjunction with its hearing of the merits of the claims.
The Philippines’ substantive claims were summarised in my previous article of 22 July 2015. To recap, its 15 claims can be broadly distilled as follows:
- China’s maritime entitlements or ‘historic rights’ over the waters, seabed and subsoil in the South China Sea do not extend beyond the limits of its entitlements under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The corollary is that China’s nine-dash line, insofar as it purports to define the limits of China’s ‘historic rights’ in the South China Sea, is not supported by UNCLOS or another source of international law;
- The various features relied upon by China to assert its maritime claims in the South China Sea are not islands (as China claims) but are properly characterised as either ‘rocks’ or ‘low tide elevations’ or are permanently submerged. China’s construction activities on particular maritime features cannot change their nature in law. This claim is critical to the arbitration because, under UNCLOS, the characterisation of these features determines the maritime entitlements they are capable of generating for a state (namely, an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and/or continental shelf);
- China’s construction and occupation activities in relation to particular maritime features in the South China Sea constitute attempted appropriation of such features in violation of UNCLOS. Further, these activities, as well as China’s fishing and law enforcement activities, have interfered with the Philippines’ ability to freely navigate in its EEZ and the exercise of its sovereign rights in relation to the resources falling within its EEZ and continental shelf; and
- China has violated UNCLOS by engaging in fishing and construction activities that damage the marine environment in the South China Sea.
In summary, the Tribunal determined that it has jurisdiction over the second and fourth categories of claims (deferring consideration of the remaining first and third categories). In so finding, the Tribunal addressed each of the following issues in relation to the question of jurisdiction.
Did the Philippines’ claims raise a dispute concerning the interpretation and application of UNCLOS?
According to China’s Position Paper, the dispute could be characterised in two ways, both of which excluded the Tribunal’s jurisdiction. First, China characterised the dispute as concerning territorial sovereignty-related questions over features in the South China Sea. On that basis, China contended that the dispute did not concern the ‘interpretation and application of UNCLOS’, being the threshold requirement for the Tribunal’s jurisdiction under article 288 of UNCLOS.
The Tribunal rejected this characterisation, finding that, while a dispute between the parties did exist concerning land sovereignty over certain features, the Philippines’ claims did not require the Tribunal to make determinations on questions of sovereignty. The Tribunal found that each of the Philippines’ claims concerned the interpretation and application of UNCLOS.
Secondly, China contended that the dispute was properly characterised as relating to maritime boundary delimitation which, for the reasons given below, was excluded from the Tribunal’s jurisdiction by an exclusionary provision in the UNCLOS that China had activated in 2006.
In rejecting this contention, the Tribunal distinguished between a dispute concerning the existence of an entitlement to maritime zones (the present matter), and a dispute concerning the delimitation of those zones where parties’ entitlements overlap. The Tribunal also emphasised that, while it would determine the nature of particular maritime features in dispute, insofar as this resulted in overlapping entitlements between the parties the Tribunal’s determination would not go so far as to delimit boundaries.
Did any of the claims fall within the exceptions to jurisdiction in Part XV of UNCLOS?
As noted above, in 2006 China opted out of the Tribunal’s jurisdiction over particular categories of disputes, including those concerning:
- sea boundary delimitations;
- historic bays and titles;
- law enforcement activities; and
- military activities.
This action was taken in accordance with article 298 of UNCLOS, which entitles a party to opt out of compulsory dispute settlement procedures for specific types of disputes when signing or ratifying UNCLOS.
Considering each of the claims in turn, the Tribunal found that none of the exceptions to jurisdiction applied to the Philippines’ second and fourth category of claims. Consequently, it had jurisdiction to determine those claims.
As to the first and third categories, the Tribunal noted that the applicability of the above exceptions depended on merits of the claims and, as such, the possible jurisdictional objections did not possess an exclusively preliminary character. For that reason, the Tribunal reserved a decision on jurisdiction for consideration in conjunction with its determination of the merits of the claims. The Tribunal’s key considerations can be broadly summarised as follows:
- The Tribunal’s jurisdiction over the first category of claims (ie, the effect of any historic rights claimed by China) is dependent on whether the claims are caught by the exclusion for ‘historic bays and titles’ in article 298 of UNCLOS. This requires a determination as to the nature and effect of China’s claimed historic rights and their interaction with UNCLOS (ie, a merits determination);
- The Tribunal’s jurisdiction over the third category of claims (ie, concerning China’s various construction/interference activities) is dependent on the status of certain maritime features claimed by China and whether any such features generate maritime entitlements for China. Insofar as they generate entitlements for China and result in overlapping entitlements to maritime zones between the parties, the exclusion from ‘sea boundary delimitations’ in article 298 would prevent the Tribunal from addressing some of the Philippines’ claims. That is, such claims would first require a delimitation of the overlapping zones, which the Tribunal is not empowered to do; and
- The specifics of China’s activities in particular areas and whether they are military in nature (and therefore fall within the exclusion in article 298) are best assessed in conjunction with the merits.
Were the preconditions to the Tribunal’s jurisdiction met?
Relying on articles 281 and 282 of UNCLOS, China contended that state parties had agreed on a peaceful dispute resolution mechanism of their own choice, precluding recourse to the compulsory dispute settlement procedures under UNCLOS. The articles essentially prevent a state from resorting to the compulsory procedures in the event that they have already agreed on another means of dispute resolution. In this regard, China pointed to a series of joint statements by state parties starting in the mid-1990s that referred to the resolution of their dispute by negotiation, as well as the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in South East Asia.
Having regard to these statements and instrument, the Tribunal concluded that they did not prevent the Philippines from resorting to arbitration under the compulsory dispute resolution provisions.
The Tribunal also found that the Philippines had satisfied the precondition for resorting to arbitration, namely, that the parties had an ‘exchange of views’ regarding settlement of the dispute (article 283). In so finding, the Tribunal relied upon diplomatic communications by the Philippines to affected parties in which it proposed multilateral negotiations to resolve the dispute. China insisted on bilateral talks only and the parties ultimately failed to identify a mutually agreeable mode of settlement.
The Tribunal also noted that it was not deprived of jurisdiction by either China’s non-participation in the arbitration to date or the absence of other states with claims to features in the South China Sea (such as Vietnam).
The dispute will now proceed to a substantive hearing to enable the Tribunal to determine the merits of the Philippines’ claims alongside the outstanding jurisdictional questions.
However, China has reiterated its position of non-acceptance of (and non-participation in) the arbitration. Its Vice Foreign Minister recently claimed that the outcome of the arbitration ‘will not impact China’s sovereignty, rights or jurisdiction over the South China Sea under historical facts and international law’. Without any power to enforce its rulings, the Tribunal could end up being entirely ignored by China insofar as the outcome is not in its favour. The proceeding could even prompt China to withdraw from UNCLOS altogether.
While the Philippines has acknowledged this risk, it hopes that an outcome unfavourable to China will encourage other states to defend their respective claims in the region and will result in sufficient diplomatic pressure to dissuade China from further construction activities in the South China Sea. In the meantime, the US has presented its most significant challenge yet to China’s claims in the South China Sea, sending a guided missile destroyer into waters within 12 nautical miles of one of the reefs in dispute days before the Tribunal published its award.
Lea Christopher is a lawyer at Clayton Utz in Canberra. The views expressed in this article are solely her own.
International Rules on the Use of Force: Implications for Russia + Ukraine, China + South and East Chinese Seas — Dr Alison Pert
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.