Printer Friendly

The Spratly Islands dispute and the law of the sea.


The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which went into effect on November 16, 1994, designates the Earth's ocean areas as being part of the common heritage of mankind, and sets forth the goals of finding peaceful and equitable solutions to disagreements regarding sovereignty over disputed territories and to establishing equal access to the Earth's marine resources.(1) In furtherance of these goals, the Convention contains provisions granting the state which has sovereignty over an island group the right to exploit its natural resources, and an entire part containing dispute resolution mechanisms to aid in the resolution of conflicts over disputed territories and their resources. There are few places in the world that provide a greater challenge to the dispute resolution mechanisms of the Law of the Sea than the South China Sea's Spratly Islands.

The islands were first mapped by the British in the 1880's,(2) and are now claimed by six nations: The People's Republic of China (PRC), The Republic of China (Taiwan), Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and the Philippines.(3) Although all of these claims have a historical basis, the primary reasons for the claims are the islands strategic location and their potential oil and gas reserves.(4)

Considering the amount of attention they have received from nearby countries, the islands themselves are small and physically insignificant by any standard. The total area of the 100 or so islets that comprise the Spratlys is less than five square kilometers,(5) the largest of the islands being only .43 kilometers square.(6) Bearing in mind that the islands are spread over a 200,000 square mile area (518,000 square kilometers), it seems clear that these islands, despite their strategic importance, are actually very small, and that the dispute over them is driven by the desire on the part of the various parties to profit from potential oil reserves and control the South China Sea.(7)

The goal of this paper is to examine the claims on the Spratly Islands that are made by the PRC and Vietnam in light of the signing of the Convention on the Law of the Sea by both countries. The scope of the paper will be limited to the claims made by the PRC and Vietnam because, of the claimants, they are the two nations between whom tensions over the Spratlys are highest. In addition, they are the nations who are most actively pursuing their goals of possessing and economically exploiting the islands. Finally, this paper will discuss the impact of the dispute resolution provisions contained in the Law of the Sea on the possible resolution of the disagreement between the PRC and Vietnam over the Spratly Islands.


Article 293(1) of the Law of the Sea states that when a territorial dispute is being settled using the Law, "[a] court or tribunal having jurisdiction under this section shall apply this Convention and other rules of international law not incompatible with this Convention" when settling the dispute.(8) This language clearly indicates that previously existing international law is to be taken into account when settling territorial disputes under the Law of the Sea.

Since the turn of the century, there have been three cases that have demonstrated what courts base their decisions on in cases involving territorial disputes over islands.(9)

In The Island of Palmas, the United States and the Netherlands agreed to arbitrate their conflicting claims of ownership of islands in the southern part of the Philippines. The United States claimed that the islands had been given to it by the Spanish at the end of the Spanish-American War. In effect, the claim was based on Spain's claim to the islands by their discovery in the 16th century.(10) The Dutch claimed that the islands had been given to the Dutch East Indies Company as tribute by native princes.(11)

After examining the competing claims, the arbitrator ruled in favor of the Dutch on the grounds that although Spain has discovered the islands, they had not taken sufficient steps to protect against their use by the Dutch. Since the Dutch used the islands on a regular basis, the court held that their title was superior to that of Spain and by extension, the United States, and that the Netherlands would retain sovereignty over the islands.(12)

This doctrine was refined in the Sovereignty Over Clipperton Island, a case between France and Mexico.(13) In this case, the French claimed the rights to an island in the Pacific Ocean due to its discovery by a French Naval Officer in 1858, after which the French did not use or visit the island until 1897. They did, however, survey the island during their 1858 expedition, and upon their arrival in Hawaii, their next port of call, placed a notice in the newspaper notifying interested parties that the island had been claimed by France.(14)

In 1897, a French Naval Ship which had been ordered to inspect the island found three Americans on the island excavating guano for a San Francisco company. France promptly protested to the United States, which replied that it had not granted any concession to the men and that it had no claims to the island. A month later, a Mexican vessel stopped at the island and forced the Americans to raise the Mexican flag, claiming that the island belonged to Mexico. Upon hearing of this, the French protested to the Mexicans, and the parties agreed to have the case settled through arbitration.(15)

In this case, the arbitrator ruled for France on the grounds that the French had taken sufficient steps to protect their claim by publishing notice of the claim and protesting unauthorized exploitation of the islands resources by the Americans whom they found on the island. This modified the Island of Palmas ruling insofar as the arbitrator did not require France to make use of the island, as Spain had been required to do. In the case of Clipperton Island, all that was required of the French was that they publicize their claim to the island and exclude others from it.(16)

The international law standard was further modified in 1933 in the Legal Status of Eastern Greenland.(17) In this case, the Permanent Court of International Justice held that if the territory in question was uninhabited due to its remote location and unfavorable climate, occupation is not required in order to retain sovereignty of the territory and that protests and the exclusion of others are sufficient.

Taken as a whole, these cases lead to the conclusion that in order to establish sovereignty over an island, a nation needs to establish title to the islands through discovery and, except in the case of inhospitable territory, needs to protect the title through use.

Examining China and Vietnam's claims on the islands in light of international case law is a task that could only be done adequately in a paper exclusively devoted to that analysis.(18) For the purposes of this paper, however, a brief overview will suffice to demonstrate that both parties have claims which meet the criteria for sovereignty established in the cases discussed above.

China's claim to the Spratlys dates back to their discovery by the Chinese in the second century B.C., which was shortly followed by the establishment of Chinese administration over the islands.(19) Following their initial discovery and use of the islands, the Chinese sent numerous expeditions to the islands, starting in about 111 B.C.(20) In addition to governmental use and exploration of the islands, the Chinese point to the fact that fishermen from Hainan used the Spratlys as emergency or seasonal homes throughout this period. This use would strengthen the Chinese claim.(21) Perhaps more importantly, the Provincial Government of Kwangtung issued five licenses between 1921 and 1932 for the exploitation of the islands resources.(22)

Starting in 1883, China's claim to the Spratlys was recognized by European powers. Of particular note is a survey by Germany conducted in 1883 which was stopped after protest from the Chinese government.(23) Following this, use of the islands by Chinese fisherman from Hainan was documented by the British and the French, and French occupation of nine of the islands was met with official protest from the Chinese in 1932.(24)

At the end of World War II, the Japanese, who had occupied the islands during the war, formally renounced their claim to the islands and surrendered them to the Republic of China at the signing of the San Francisco Peace Treaty on September 8, 1951.(25) Understandably, the Chinese place a great deal of emphasis on the fact that the Japanese surrendered the island to the Chinese, and not to the French, who had occupied some of the islands prior to their seizure by the Japanese in 1939.(26) This is especially important because the Vietnamese claim to the islands is based in part on the French occupation of the islands from 1932 until 1939.

Since World War II, both the PRC and the Republic of China have maintained garrisons on the islands(27) and have taken steps to maintain the validity of their claims on the islands.(28) The most dramatic example of China's assertion of its sovereignty over the islands was a naval engagement that occurred in 1988 when Chinese patrol craft opened fire on three Vietnamese freighters delivering supplies to a Vietnamese outpost on one of the islands.(29) Most recently, the People's Republic of China has built what it claims are shelters for fishermen on what is perhaps appropriately called Mischief Reef. This activity has been met with strong objections by the Philippines, which claim the reef as a part of Palawan Province, and which claims that the structure is in fact a naval support installation.(30) In addition to this, in 1992 the Chinese Parliament passed a Law on the Territorial Sea and the Contiguous Zone on February 25, explicitly claiming the Spratlys as a part of China.(31)

Vietnam's claims to the islands do not have as extensive a history as those of the Chinese. They are based in large part on Vietnam's continuation of French claims and French actions in the South China Sea during Vietnam's colonial period.

The French first contested Chinese sovereignty over the Spratly Islands in 1933, when the French Foreign Ministry announced that France had occupied six of the islands since 1930, and asserted French authority over them. It is not clear what the legal grounds for the French action were, but some commentators have speculated that the French considered the islands to be terra nullis even though they found Chinese living there when they arrived.(32)

Like China, France's priorities changed during World War II, and as a result, the French claim to the Spratly Islands does not appear to have been raised until well after the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu.(33) The Vietnamese first acted to strengthen their claim in 1956, when the South Vietnamese government placed a garrison on Spratly Island. This was followed by a declaration stating that the entire Spratly archipelago was a part of Vietnam's Phuoc Tuy Province.(34)

After the fall of Saigon in 1975, the Vietnamese government in Hanoi restated the claims made by the South Vietnamese government and sent troops to the Spratlys to increase the number of islands under its control.(35) More recently, the Vietnamese government issued a statement which reiterates the Vietnamese claim to the islands and places these islands within the baselines of Vietnam's territorial sea.(36) In 1992, Vietnam took steps to strengthen its claim to the islands by conducting surveys of the islands and signing an agreement with a Norwegian oil company for the exploration and drilling rights to the islands.(37)

Although the Chinese claim to the islands would appear to be the stronger of the two, based on its earlier claim of discovery and its nearly continuous use of the islands since the second century B.C., the Vietnamese insist that the islands are theirs, and state that the Chinese claims are not valid. In light of the rising tensions between the countries over the islands, it seems clear that one of the few ways in which a peaceful resolution can be reached is through arbitration. The dispute settlement provisions of the Law of the Sea are designed for these kinds of disputes. Since all of the major parties in the Spratly Islands dispute are signatories to the Law of the Sea Convention it is only natural that our attention turn to the impact of the Law of the Sea on the existing international law.(38)


Under the Law of the Sea, disputes concerning the implementation or application of the Convention must be settled using Convention and international law not incompatible with it.(39) Simply put, the Law of the Sea incorporates existing international law into it and refines it. Of particular interest in this dispute are the articles of the Law of the Sea that define the territorial sea, contiguous zone, exclusive economic zone, and the continental shelf, and their impact on the existing law.

Under Article Two of the Law of the Sea, "[t]he sovereignty of a coastal State extends, beyond its land territory and internal waters ... to an adjacent belt of sea, described as the territorial sea."(40) The Law of the Sea also establishes the contiguous zone, within which the coastal state may enforce its laws to the extent necessary to punish the violation of those laws.(41) By granting the coastal state sovereignty within its territorial sea and the right to enforce its laws within the contiguous zone (which includes the territorial sea), the Law of the Sea grants the coastal state the exclusive right to authorize the exploitation of any natural resources within those areas.

In addition to the territorial sea and the contiguous zone, the Law of the Sea grants the coastal state "sovereign rights for the purpose of exploring and exploiting, conserving and managing the natural resources" within the exclusive economic zone of the coastal state, an area extending 200 nautical miles from the baselines from which the territorial sea is measured.(42) The coastal state also has the right to authorize the construction of artificial islands, which, under Article 60, includes oil rigs and other structures necessary for the economic development of the economic zone under Article 56.(43)

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the Law of the Sea grants the coastal state the sovereign right to develop the natural resources on the State's continental shelf.(44) The continental shelf is an area, most often extending beyond the contiguous zone, that
   comprises the sea-bed and subsoil of the submarine areas that extend beyond
   its territorial sea throughout the natural prolongation of its land
   territory to the outer edge of the continental margin, or to a distance of
   200 nautical miles from the baselines from which the breadth of the
   territorial sea is measured where the outer edge of the continental margin
   does not extend up to that distance.(45)

In Article 76(6), the Convention states that regardless of the provisions of Article 76(1), that a State's continental shelf area cannot extend further than 350 nautical miles.(46)

The effect of adopting these provisions has been to raise the importance of the Spratlys by granting the state that has sovereignty over them the right to exploit the natural resources within a 350-nautical-mile radius of the islands, an area that includes much of the South China Sea.

However, there are also portions of the Law of the Sea which would appear to mitigate the effects of Articles 2, 33, 56, and 77 by redefining what an island is, thus diminishing the strategic and economic importance of some islands relative to what their status would have been prior to the adoption of the Law of the Sea in 1982.

Article 121 defines what constitutes an island under the Law of the Sea. Using the definition in this article, it would seem that all but the largest of the Spratlys are not islands under the Law of the Sea, and therefore do not have a territorial sea of their own and cannot be used when determining the boundaries of the territorial sea, exclusive economic zone, or the continental shelf.

Specifically, Article 121 states that "[a]n island is a naturally formed area of land, surrounded by water, which is above water at high tide." Furthermore, in order to be considered an island, the land must be capable of sustaining "human habitation or economic life of their own."(47) Article 60(8) states that "[a]rtificial islands, installations, and structures, do not have the status of islands," and that because of this, they cannot "affect the delimitation of the territorial sea, exclusive economic zone, or the continental shelf."(48)

These articles have an important impact on the Spratlys primarily because they have the potential to reduce the exclusive economic zone and continental shelf areas of the islands signicantly. According to the CIA's World Factbook, the Spratly Islands consist of "islets, coral reefs, and sea mounts" many of which are submerged at high tide and are therefore not considered islands under Article 121.(49) The fact that Article 60(8) clearly states that artificial islands such as the ones that have been built by the Chinese and Vietnamese will not affect the delimitation of the exclusive economic zone or the continental shelf means that although the structures may strengthen their respective claims through use of the islands, they will not aid them in establishing the right to exploit some of the resources that would be within the exclusive economic zone or continental shelf if the structures were considered in the delimitation.

Furthermore, even if the islands which the Law of the Sea allows to be taken into account for the delimitation of the exclusive economic zone and continental shelf are arranged in such a way as to maintain the original geographic dimensions of the archipelago, there is some question as to whether or not they can sustain human habitation or economic life as required by Article 121. One could certainly argue that since it is possible for men to live year-round on Antarctica, it is certainly possible to sustain life on the Spratlys, given sufficient planning and resources. The existence of the various garrisons of the islands seem to bear this out. A close reading of Article 121, however, seems to point to the conclusion that the drafters of the Law of the Sea intended that the life on the islands be self-sustaining, and not dependent on regular shipment of supplies from Beijing, Hanoi, Manila, or Kuala Lumpur. The article is quite clear in this respect, stating that "[r]ocks which cannot sustain human habitation ... of their own shall have no exclusive economic zone or continental shelf."(50) This interpretation of Article 121 would seem to preclude the majority of the Spratly "Islands" from being classified as islands under the Law of the Sea, thereby preventing them from playing a substantial role in the delimitation of the exclusive economic zone or continental shelf.

Additionally, leaving aside considerations such as the strategic location of the islands and the national pride that the nations involved seem to attach to remaining on the islands, it is questionable whether or not it is economically feasible to maintain a population on the islands. In large part, this will depend on the feasibility of removing oil from the surrounding area.

The view that application of the Law of the Sea to the Spratlys lessens their importance is reinforced by the provisions of the Law of the Sea that address the status of archipelagos.

Article 46 of the Law of the Sea defines an archipelago as "a group of islands ... which are so closely interrelated that such islands, waters and other natural features form an intrinsic geographical, economic and political entity, or which historically have been regarded as such.(51) On reflection, it is not clear that the Spratlys fit into the Law of the Sea's definition of an archipelago. The geographic unity of the islands is cast into doubt by the Philippines' claim that islands claimed by them form an island group that is distinct from the Spratlys chain.(52) The economic unity of the islands is debatable since there is no trade between the different islands. At this time, the only economic activity on the islands is the collection of guano and fishing. Finally, it appears clear that although several nations claim all of the islands, the Spratlys have never been unified under one country's rule. These arguments seem a bit formalistic in light of the fact that despite the conflicting claims of sovereignty and dividing lines that break the Spratlys up, they are regarded as an archipelago by the majority of the claimants.

The Law of the Sea provides that the baselines of an archipelago may be drawn from the outermost points of the outermost islands and drying reefs of the archipelago provided that within such baselines are included the main islands and an area in which the ratio of the area of water to the area of land, including atolls, is between 1 to 1 and 9 to 1.(53)

Using data taken from Michael Bennett's article, The People's Republic of China and the Use of International Law in the Spratly Islands Dispute, and the CIA's 1992 World Factbook, it would appear that the ratio of water to land falls far short of the required amount.(54) Although it is unclear how the baselines for the Spratly archipelago would have to be drawn in order to bring them within Article 47's requirements, it is apparent that the area within the baselines would be substantially smaller than what has been traditionally regarded as being the area of the Spratly Islands, and that this would result within a corresponding reduction in the dimensions of the exclusive economic zone and the continental shelf.

Looking back on the decisions made in the Island of Palmas, Sovereignty Over Clipperton Island, and Legal Status of Eastern Greenland, one is forced to wonder if the islands in question would even be considered islands in the first two cases. While the Law of the Sea states that disputes concerning its interpretation and implementation must be settled in accordance with international law, it seems clear that the definitions contained in the Law of the Sea will have a limiting effect on the circumstances in which this law can be used.


Articles 74 and 83 of the Law of the Sea state that when there is disagreement concerning the delimitation of the exclusive economic zone (Article 74) or continental shelf (Article 83), the states must try to reach an agreement under Article 38 of the Statute of the International Court of Justice (hereinafter "ICJ").(55) In turn, Article 38 of the ICJ Statute requires that disputes brought before the ICJ be settled in accordance with international conventions recognized by the states, international custom, and general principles of law in such a way as to arrive at a just and fair decision.(56)

If the parties to the dispute cannot reach a settlement through negotiations within a reasonable time, Articles 74 and 83 state that they may "resort to the procedures provided for in Part XV."(57) Part XV obligates the parties to settle their disputes in a peaceful manner, in keeping with Article 2(3) of the U.N. Charter and to find solutions to the dispute using the non-violent means listed in Article 33(1) of the Charter.(58) All of these provisions incorporate current international law into the Law of the Sea and reaffirm the support of the signing countries for the principles set out in the U.N. Charter and other sources of international law.

With the exception of China, the parties to the Spratly Islands dispute have taken steps to demonstrate their willingness to resolve the conflict in a manner consistent with the U.N. Charter. In particular, the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) signed declarations in 1988 and 1992 reaffirming their commitment to finding a peaceful solution to the Spratly Islands dispute.

The Manila Declaration, signed by the ASEAN nations in 1988 states that "[i]ntra-regional disputes shall be settled by peaceful means in accordance with the spirit of the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia and the United Nations Charter."(59) Although the primary purpose of the Manila Declaration was to "provide a consensus framework for the avoidance of conflict and the pursuit of peaceful cooperation," the reactions from the non-ASEAN parties to the dispute was mixed.(60) Vietnam, an ASEAN observer at the meeting, expressed its full support for the declaration. China, on the other hand, said that it would be willing to enter into negotiations "when the conditions became ripe," an ominous statement that could be interpreted as meaning "whenever it suits our interests.(61)

The Manila Declaration was followed four years later by the Singapore Declaration, which restated many of the themes of the Manila Declaration. Although the Singapore Declaration was focused more on economic cooperation than on security matters, the members of ASEAN did extend an invitation to other states in the ASEAN region to sign ASEAN's Treaty of Amity and Cooperation,(62) which includes provisions for establishing a regional system of peaceful dispute resolution similar to the European Court of Justice.(63) Both of these declarations are indicative of the willingness of some of the parties to the dispute to settle the dispute in a peaceful manner, in keeping with the spirit of the U.N. Charter and the Law of the Sea.

Under Section 1 of Part XV, the first step in the settlement of a dispute is to have one of the parties to the dispute initiate conciliation proceedings by inviting the parties to the dispute to have the matter settled under the voluntary procedures of Annex V.(64) These proceedings are considered to be finished when the parties fail to agree on the procedure of the conciliation proceedings or when the invitation is not accepted.(65) Given the fact that neither Vietnam or China have initiated conciliation proceedings, it does not seen likely that voluntary conciliation proceedings will provide a solution to the dispute between these two nations over the Spratlys.

If anything, China seems confident that it can successfully back its claim to the Spratlys through military posturing and intimidation. In recent years, the Chinese have taken steps to transform their navy from being primarily a coastal defense fleet to being a blue water fleet capable of projecting power into the South China Sea. Most notably, China has purchased Russian submarines,(66) and high-ranking officers of the Chinese Navy have called for the construction of a nuclear-powered air-craft carrier capable of carrying 50 airplanes.(67) In addition to this, both China and Vietnam have signed contracts with oil companies for the exploration of the area around the islands.(68) Protests by China and Vietnam in reaction to each other's actions have only resulted in responses that further exacerbate the situation.(69)

Given the failure of China or Vietnam to initiate arbitration despite the rising tensions in the area, it seems more likely that one of the other parties to the dispute, one which cannot compete militarily with China and Vietnam, might initiate compulsory binding arbitration under Part XV. A smaller state such a Malaysia or the Philippines would gain a considerable advantage by initiating arbitration because it removes the military element from the equation.

Parties to Law of the Sea are understood to have accepted arbitration of their maritime disputes under Part XV of the Convention. If the state does not want to have disputes to which it is a party settled under the provisions of the Law of the Sea, it must declare that this is the case at the signing of the Convention.(70) Neither China nor Vietnam did this when they signed the Convention. Therefore, the dispute resolution provisions of the Law of the Sea apply to them and disputes to which they are a party.

Under Part XV of the Law of the Sea, a party to a dispute concerning the interpretation or application of the Law of the Sea may submit it to compulsory proceedings resulting in a binding decision. Article 286 states that "where no settlement has been reached by recourse to Section I [voluntary negotiations outside the framework of the; Law of the Sea], [disputes may] be submitted at the request of any party of the dispute to the court or tribunal having jurisdiction under this section.(72) Article 287(3) augments this by declaring that "[a] State Party, which is a party to a dispute not covered by a declaration in force, shall be deemed to have accepted arbitration in accordance with Annex VII."(72)

Although both Annexes V and VII contain provisions for the arbitration of disputes, Annex VII is the Annex that would be applied to this dispute. Article I of Annex V clearly states that "fill the parties to a dispute have submit it to conciliation under this section, any such party may institute the proceedings by written notification addressed to the other party or parties to the dispute."(73) Clearly, if Vietnam and China voluntarily agreed to settle their dispute through arbitration, Annex V would apply. However, that is not case, and it seems most likely that any arbitration that takes place under the Law of the Sea will be compulsory arbitration that is initiated unilaterally, as envisioned in Annex VII.

Under the provisions of Annex VII, "any party to a dispute may submit the dispute to the arbital procedure provided for in this Annex by written notification addressed to the other party or parties to the dispute.(74) The Annex then states that "[i]f one of the parties to the dispute does not appear before the arbital tribunal or fails to defend its case, the other party may request the tribunal to continue and to make its award.(75) It appears that if a third party were to initiate arbitration under Annex VII, China and Vietnam would be compelled to defend their claims not only because they are bound to as signatories of the Convention, but also because it is in their interest to do so in order to state their case before the tribunal.

Finally, if the claims of the Chinese and Vietnamese to the islands are as substantial as both parties claim they are, there is no reason that they should be reluctant to participate in arbitration under Annex VII. Although the party initiating the arbitration may gain a psychological advantage by starting the proceedings, this is offset by the rest of the provisions of Annex VII. For example, although the nation initiating the arbitration is allowed to appoint an arbitrator, that person must be named from a list of arbitrators to which all signatories are allowed to contribute four names.(76) If there are more than two parties, as in the case of the Spratlys, each party may appoint a member of the panel, and the panel increases in size so that the number of jointly-appointed arbitrators exceeds the number of arbitrators who have been appointed by the parties to the dispute. The jointly-appointed members of the arbitration panel must be appointed by agreement between the parties to the dispute, and cannot be nationals of either of the parties. The President of the panel must be chosen from among the jointly-appointed members of the panel.(77)

Once the arbitrators have been appointed, the panel is left to its own devices to determine what its operating procedures will be.(78) The only substantive restriction that is placed on the panel is that in the course of reaching its decision, it must apply the "Convention and other rules of international law not incompatible with it."(79) However, this does not preclude the panel from deciding a case ex aequo et bono.(80) In short, the panel may act in equity if it feels it is necessary to do so.


Since 1992, tensions in the Spratlys have increased dramatically despite numerous calls for the parties to find a peaceful resolution to the disputes.(81) Specifically, actions taken by China have raised tensions in the area.

In 1992, China entered into an agreement with Crestone Energy Development Corporation of Denver for the exploration of a 25,155 square kilometer area around the Spratlys. The Vietnamese responded by negotiating a contract between their national oil company, Petrovietnam, and Nopec, a Norwegian company, also for exploration of the area around the Spratlys for oil.(82) Tensions between the countries escalated to the point that shots were exchanged between their Border Guards at the Friendship Gate.(83)

Second, China has recently begun to probe the area of the islands claimed by the Philippines with its navy and fishing fleets.(84) This pattern of action by the Chinese led to the arrest of 62 Chinese fishermen in March of this year for straying into waters claimed by the Philippines and fishing there illegally. In addition, two Chinese boats were impounded by the Philippine Navy, which discovered 80 sea turtles (an endangered species), dynamite, and cyanide.(85) Furthermore, China has seized a reef claimed by the Philippines,(86) and has built what the Philippines claims is a naval support installation on it.(87) These actions have led to speculation that "China may be readying itself for a military strike against the Philippines."(88)

Finally, the Chinese have broadened the scope of the Spratlys dispute by drawing Indonesia and Malaysia further into the dispute. China recently published maps showing the Indonesian archipelago of Natuna, which is also located in the South China Sea,(89) as a part of China's sovereign territory.(90) This claim by the Chinese threatens to draw the Indonesians into the dispute at a time when Indonesia has been trying to act as mediator between China and the members of ASEAN involved in the dispute.(91) China has not responded to Indonesian protests regarding this matter.(92) With regards to Malaysia, Chinese fishing boats have been boarded and warning shots have been fired by the Malaysian Navy in response to Chinese fishing off the coast of Sarawak, south of the Spratlys.(93)

In short, Chinese actions in the South China Sea are such that Philippine Secretary of Defense Renato De Villa has stated that "China's latest activities ... appear to reflect a two-pronged strategy, that is slowly but steadily moving into the disputed territory while talking peace with its rival claimants.(94) In addition, the actions have reinforced fears in Asia that China will emerge from the Cold War as an expansionist superpower.(95) A recent ASEAN-Chinese consultative meeting during which the situation in the Spratly Islands was discussed only reinforced these fears, and the ASEAN delegates left not having made any progress with regards to the Chinese, but; determined to stand together against what they perceive as the growing Chinese threat. As one observer noted, "[i]t's time that the line in the water was drawn against the Chinese."(96)

These tensions are further heightened by China's rejection of multilateral talks proposed by ASEAN. To date, the Chinese have insisted that negotiations between the parties be on a bilateral basis, breaking up the proceedings in a way that might be advantageous to the Chinese. With the addition of Vietnam to ASEAN in July of 1997, however, it is possible that bilateral negotiations could take place bilaterally on a China-ASEAN level.(97) Although this might satisfy China's demands that the talks be bilateral, a byproduct of this arrangement might be an increase in tensions between ASEAN and its powerful neighbor to the north.

The increased tensions in the area make it more important than ever that the Spratly islands dispute be submitted to arbitration under Annex VII of the Law of the Sea. As described above, these proceedings have the advantages of being both compulsory and binding, so any solution reached would be permanent and involve all of the parties to the dispute.

Under paragraph 3 of Articles 74 and 83, the parties of the dispute must "make every effort to enter into provisional arrangements of a practical nature" during the period in which a final agreement is being negotiated.(98) In the case of the Spratly Islands, this might involve either a moratorium on the development of natural resources or an agreement for the joint development of the natural resources in the area.(99) Already, there have been suggestions from parties to the dispute and other nations in the region that the parties should look into the possibility of joint development.(100) As precedent, advocates of joint development could point to the arrangements agreed upon by Malaysia and Thailand for the joint development of natural resources in areas in which their territorial waters overlap.(101)

In the case of the Spratlys, it is essential that the parties negotiate an interim agreement pending the conclusion of arbitration under the Law of the Sea. Not only are they required to under Articles 74 and 83, but the complexity of the situation and the length of time that it will take to negotiate a settlement almost demand it.(102) Due to the involvement of six rival claimants, a dispute that might not be particularly difficult to resolve has become one of the most complex in recent history.

The fact that ownership of the islands is contested complicates the job of boundary delimitation immensely. Almost by definition, boundary delimitation is done after it has been determined which nations own which pieces of land. The North Sea Continental Shelf Cases are a good example of this.(103) In that case, it was clear where the parties continental shelves began and ended, the problem was that they overlapped. In the case of the Spratlys, there will have to be two steps taken before the dispute is settled. First, the parties will have to determine which nations own which islands. Only after that is done will they be able to determine where the boundaries between their overlapping zones should be drawn.

It is possible that the arbital panel established under Annex VII could address both issues, in which case the proceedings of the panel could reasonably be expected to last for some time. If this happens, it is essential that an interim agreement be established due to the potentially lengthy period over which the talks would take place.


In light of the rising tensions in the region due to the dispute over the Spratly Islands, arbitration under Part XV of the Law of the Sea seems to be the best way to settle the dispute. Even if the ASEAN nations submit the dispute for arbitration as a group, it is not clear that China will comply with an arbitrated settlement. Like many international agreements, the Convention on the Law of the Sea lacks an enforcement mechanism, and because of this, there is no guarantee that China will comply with the "compulsory" procedures outlined in Annex VII.

Given that this is the case, and understanding that it would take a prohibitively long time to settle the dispute under Annex VII, it may be best to adopt the course of action advocated by the Thais, Indonesians, and (at times) the Chinese: joint development. If a program of joint development is agreed on, exploitation could begin relatively soon, and all of the nations would benefit. In addition to economic benefits, potential bloodshed between China and the other parties would be averted.

Advocates of this approach to the situation can point to the Ems-Dollart Treaty of 1960 as an example of what could be done. In that treaty, the Netherlands and the Federal Republic of Germany agreed to joint development of oil and gas reserves in the estuary of the Ems river.(104) A more persuasive example might be the agreement reached between Japan and South Korea, in which they agreed to the joint development of the continental shelf adjacent to the two countries.(105) Once joint development is agreed upon, it may be the case that the islands themselves could be set aside for joint administration, leaving aside the sovereignty issue altogether.

In any case, either through the mechanisms of the Law of the Sea, or though an agreement for joint development, it is essential that a solution to the Spratly dispute be reached in keeping with the spirit of the U.N. Charter. If this is not done, China's actions in the area may soon prove that Thucydides was correct when he wrote "in fact the strong do what they have the power to do and the weak accept what they have to accept."(106)

(1.) United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, Dec. 10, 1982, preamble, 21 I.L.M. 1261, 1271 [hereinafter Law of the Sea].

(2.) Teh-Kuang Chang, China's Claim Over Spratly and Paracel Islands: A Historical and Legal Perspective, 23 CASE W. RES. J. INT'L L. 399, 400 n. 8 (1991).

(3.) Michael Bennett, The People's Republic of China and the Use of International Law in the Spratly Islands Dispute, 28 STAN. J. INT'L LAW 425, 425 (1992).

(4.) Roberto R. Romulo, Philippine Foreign Policy: New Policy in a Changing World Environment, 17-SUM FLETCHER F. WORLD AFF. 131, 133.

(5.) U.S. CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE AGENCY, 1992 WORLD FACTBOOK 318 (1992), cited in Richard D. Beller, Note, Analyzing the Relationship Between International Law and International Politics in China's and Vietnam's Territorial Dispute Over the Spratly Islands, 29 TEX. INT'L L.J. 293, 295 (1994).

(6.) Tao Cheng, The Dispute Over the South China Seas Islands, 10 TEX. INT'L L.J. 265, 267 (1975).

(7.) Bennett, supra note 3, at 429.

(8.) Law of the Sea, supra note 1, art. 293, 21 I.L.M. at 1324.

(9.) See Beller, supra note 5, at 303-4.

(10.) Philip C. Jessup, The Palmas Island Arbitration, 22 AM. J. INT'L L. 735, 737 (1928).

(11.) Id., at 735.

(12.) Belier, supra note 5, at 303-4.

(13.) Sovereignty Over Clipperton Island (Fr. v. Mex.), 26 AM. J. INT'L L 390 (1932).

(14.) Id., at 391.

(15.) Id., at 391-92.

(16.) Id., at 391-94

(17.) Legal Status of Eastern Greenland (Den v. Nor.), 1933 P.C.I.J. (Ser. A/B) No 53, cited in Belier, supra note 5, at 304, n.103.

(18.) See generally Bennett, supra note 3 (discussing China's historical claims to the Spratly Islands and its attitude regarding international legal norms in relation to the dispute); Chang, supra note 2 (includes an exhaustive discussion of China's historical claims to the islands in addition to legal analysis of the different legal claims made by China); Cheng, supra note 6 (provides a more succinct overview of China and Vietnam's claims to the islands).

(19.) Chang, supra note 2 at 403. (Chang notes that his accounts of the Chinese discovery and use of the islands are based on Chinese history books. Bearing this in mind, it may be that these sources overstate the Chinese claim somewhat, as I was unable to find other articles that verify the dates in this article).

(20.) Id.

(21.) Cheng, supra note 6 at 274.

(22.) Id.

(23.) Chang, supra note 2 at 405.

(24.) Id., at 406.

(25.) Cheng, supra note 6 at 275.

(26.) Id.

(27.) Although both the People's Republic of China and the Republic of China (Taiwan) maintain forces on the islands, this paper only addresses the claims made by the PRC for two reasons. First, the PRC has been the more aggressive of the two in pursuing its claim. Second, since both the PRC and Taiwan only recognize the existence of one China, and since the PRC is a member of the UN and Taiwan is not, it seems logical to concentrate on the PRC's claim, understanding that the PRC has acquired Taiwan's claim through the process of state succession. See Beller, supra note 5 at 307-8.

(28.) Id., at 295 (All of the nations in the dispute maintain garrisons on the islands except for Brunei. In addition to its garrison, Malaysia has built a hotel on one of the islands. Icl. at 310).

(29.) Bennett, supra note 3 at 427.

(30.) Philippines: Manila Rules Out Armed Response in Spratlys, Reuters, Feb. 10, 1995, available in WESTLAW, Int-News Database.

(31.) Law on the Territorial Sea and the Contiguous Zone of 25 February 1992, adopted by the Standing Committee of the People's Congress, reprinted in The Law of the Sea: Current Developments in State Practice (No. III), at 26-9.

(32.) Cheng, supra note 6 at 268-69.

(33.) Id., at 269-70.

(34.) Bennett, supra note 3 at 439.

(35.) Id.

(36.) Statement of 12 November 1982 by the Government of the Socialist Republic of Viet Nam on the territorial sea baseline of Viet Nam, reprinted in The Law of the Sea' Current Developments in State Practice (No. I), at 143-44 (Previously circulated as UN document A/37/697 of 6 December 1982).

(37.) Beller, supra note 5 at 297.

(38.) Except for Brunei, which did not sign either the final act of the Conference or the Convention. See 21 I.L.M. 1447.

(39.) Law of the Sea, supra note 1, art. 293, 21 I.L.M. at 1324.

(40.) Id., art. 2, 21 I.L.M. at 1272.

(41.) Id., art. 33, 21 I.L.M. at 1276.

(42.) Id., art. 56(1)(a), 21 I.L.M. at 1279; art. 57, 21 I.L.M. at 1279.

(43.) Id., art. 56(1)(b), 21 I.L.M. at 1279.

(44.) Id., art. 77(1), 21 I.L.M. at 1285.

(45.) Id., art. 76(1), 21 I.L.M. at 1285.

(46.) Id., art. 76(6), 21 I.L.M. at 1285.

(47.) Id., art. 121(1), 21 I.L.M. at 1291.

(48.) Id., art 60(8), 21 I.L.M. at 1279.

(49.) U.S. CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE AGENCY, 1992 WORLD FACTBOOK 318 (1992), cited in Beller, supra note 5.

(50.) Law of the Sea, supra note 1, art. 121, 21 I.L.M. at 1291 (emphasis added).

(51.) Id., art. 46, 21 I.L.M. 1278.

(52.) Romulo, supra note 4, at 133.

(53.) Law of the Sea, supra note 1, art 47(1), 21 I.L.M. at 1278.

(54.) See Bennett, supra note 3, at 429 (states that the islands are "500 miles from north to south and 400 miles from east to west," bringing the total area to 200,000 square miles, or 518,000 square kilometers); U.S. CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE AGENCY, 1992 World Factbook 318 (1992), cited in Beller, supra note 5 at 295 (states that the total land area of the islands is "less than 5 [km.sup.2.]"). Using these numbers, the ratio of water to land comes out to roughly 103,000 [km.sup.2] of water for every square kilometer of land, far outside the limits set by Article 47(1).

(55.) Law of the Sea, supra note 1, art. 74(1), 21 I.L.M. 1284; Id., art 83(1), 21 I.L.M. 1286.

(56.) Statute of the International Court of Justice art. 38.

(57.) Law of the Sea, supra note 1 art. 74(2), 21 I.L.M. at 1284; Id., art. 83(2), 21 I.L.M. 1286.

(58.) U.N. CHARTER art. 2, para. 3; U.N. CHARTER art. 33, para. 1.

(59.) Manila Declaration of 1987, Dec. 15, 1987, 27 I.L.M. 603, 603 (1988).

(60.) Romulo, supra note 4 at 133.

(61.) Id.

(62.) Singapore Declaration of 1992, Jan. 28, 1992, 31 I.L.M. 498, 499 (1992).

(63.) Deborah A. Haas, Out of Others' Shadows: ASEAN Moves Toward Greater Regional Cooperation in the Face of the EC and NAFTA, 9 AM. U. J. INT'L L. & POL'Y 809, 859-62.

(64.) Law of the Sea, supra note 1, art. 279, 21 I.L.M. 1322.

(65.) Id., art. 284, 21 I.L.M. 1322.

(66.) Tom Grimmer, Asia: Peace Has Been a Boon for East Asia's Economies - South China Sea Remains Nagging Problem, FINANCIAL POST, Apr. 19, 1995.

(67.) China Must Have Nuclear Flattop, Naval Officer Says, Kyodo News International, Jan 30, 1995, available in WEST-LAW, 1995 WL 2224358.

(68.) Beller, supra note 5 at 297.

(69.) See Id.

(70.) Law of the Sea, supra note 1, art. 298, 21 I.L.M. 1325.

(71.) Id., art. 286, 21 I.L.M. 1322.

(72.) Id., art. 287(3), 21 I.L.M. 1322.

(73.) Id., Annex V, art. 1, 21 I.L.M. 1344 (Under art. 318, the Annexes to the Convention form an integral part of the Convention and have the same status as the articles of the main body of the Convention. Id., art. 318, 21 I.L.M. 1328).

(74.) Id., Annex VII, art. 1, 21 I.L.M. 1350.

(75.) Id. Annex VII art.9, 21 I.L.M. 1351.

(76.) Id. Annex VII art. 2, 21 I.L.M. 1350.

(77.) Id.

(78.) Id., Annex VII, art. 5, 21 I.L.M. 1351.

(79.) Id., art. 293, 21 I.L.M. 1324.

(80.) Id.

(81.) See Thailand: Banharn Wants Gov't to Host Talks on Spratlys, BANGKOK POST, Apr. 4, 1995, at 7 (Thailand urges joint development of the islands); Thailand: Chuan Offers to Help Settle Spratly Islands Conflict, BANGKOK POST, Apr. 6, 1995, at 7 (Thailand offers to act as mediator in negotiations over the Spratlys); Japan: Japan, Vietnam Agree to Enhance Ties, JIJI PRESS, Apr. 18, 1995, available in LEXIS, ASIAPC database (Vietnam expresses hope for settlement under international law).

(82.) Beller, supra note 5, at 297.

(83.) Id.

(84.) Grimmer, supra note 66.

(85.) Slow Boil in the Spratlys, ASIAWEEK, April 14, 1995, available in LEXIS, ASIAPC database.

(86.) China: Europe Seeks China's Favour, ECONOMIST, Apr. 22, 1995.

(87.) Ruben Alabastro, Philippines: Manila Alleges Chinese "Duplicity" in Spratlys, REUTERS ECONOMIC NEWS, Apr. 10, 1995, available in LEXIS, ASIAPC database.

(88.) China: Europe Seeks China's Favour, supra note 86.

(89.) Indonesia: No Chinese Reply to Indonesia's Natuna Question, REUTERS, Apr. 10, 1995, available in LEXIS, ALLNWS database.

(90.) Greg Earl, Indonesia: Steps Up China Sea Patrols, AUSTRALIAN FINANCIAL REVIEW, Apr. 12, 1995, at 12.

(91.) Id.

(92.) Id.

(93.) Slow Boil in the Spratlys, supra note 85.

(94.) Earl, supra note 90.

(95.) Lindsay Murdoch, China: Islands Dispute Fuels Fear of Chinese Intent, MELBOURNE AGE, Apr. 3, 1995, at 12.

(96.) Slow Boil in the Spratlys, supra note 85.

(97.) Id.

(98.) Law of the Sea, supra note 1, art. 74, 21 I.L.M. 1284; Id., art 83, 21 I.L.M. 1286.

(99.) Rainer Lagoni, Interim Measures Pending Maritime Delimitation Agreements, 78 AM. J. INT'L L. 345, 360-62.

(100.) See Spratlys: Taiwan Calls for Joint Development, PERISCOPE DAILY DEFENSE NEWS CAPSULES, Sept. 8, 1993; Bratislava: China Wants Common Management of Spratlys - Qian, REUTERS, Apr. 4, 1995, available in WESTLAW, Int-News database; Thailand: Churn Offers to Help Settle Spratly Islands Conflict, supra note 81.

(101.) Thailand: Churn Offers to Help Settle Spratly Islands Conflict, supra note 81.

(102.) Lagoni, supra note 99, at 346-47 (noting that the time needed to reach a decision in recent maritime delimitation cases has ranged from three years eight years, and that the ICJ expects that more complicated cases will take a longer time to decide).

(103.) North Sea Continental Shelf Cases (F.R.G.v. Den, F.R.G.v. Neth), 1969 I.C.J. 3.

(104.) Lagoni, supra note 99, at 361.

(105.) Id.


David Whiting, J.D., 1997, University of Denver, College of Law.
COPYRIGHT 1998 University of Denver
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1998 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Whiting, David
Publication:Denver Journal of International Law and Policy
Geographic Code:0JINT
Date:Aug 6, 1998
Previous Article:Resolving North America's environmental disputes.
Next Article:An update on: Self-Determination and Humanitarian Intervention in a Community of Power by James A.R. Nafziger.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters