By: The Permanent Court of Arbitration
The Hague, The Netherlands
Last of four parts
4. The Tribunal’s Decisions on the Merits of the Philippines’ Claims
a. The ‘Nine-Dash Line’ and China’s Claim to Historic Rights in the Maritime Areas of the South China Sea
In its Award of 12 July 2016, the Tribunal considered the implications of China’s ‘nine-dash line’ and whether China has historic rights to resources in the South China Sea beyond the limits of the maritime zones that it is entitled to pursuant to the Convention.
The Tribunal examined the history of the Convention and its provisions concerning maritime zones and concluded that the Convention was intended to comprehensively allocate the rights of States to maritime areas. The Tribunal noted that the question of pre-existing rights to resources (in particular fishing resources) was carefully considered during the negotiations on the creation of the exclusive economic zone and that a number of States wished to preserve historic fishing rights in the new zone. This position was rejected, however, and the final text of the Convention gives other States only a limited right of access to fisheries in the exclusive economic zone (in the event the coastal State cannot harvest the full allowable catch) and no rights to petroleum or mineral resources. The Tribunal found that China’s claim to historic rights to resources was incompatible with the detailed allocation of rights and maritime zones in the Convention and concluded that, to the extent China had historic rights to resources in the waters of the South China Sea, such rights were extinguished by the entry into force of the Convention to the extent they were incompatible with the Convention’s system of maritime zones.
The Tribunal also examined the historical record to determine whether China actually had historic rights to resources in the South China Sea prior to the entry into force of the Convention. The Tribunal noted that there is evidence that Chinese navigators and fishermen, as well as those of other States, had historically made use of the islands in the South China Sea, although the Tribunal emphasized that it was not empowered to decide the question of sovereignty over the islands. However, the Tribunal considered that prior to the Convention, the waters of the South China Sea beyond the territorial sea were legally part of the high seas, in which vessels from any State could freely navigate and fish. Accordingly, the Tribunal concluded that historical navigation and fishing by China in the waters of the South China Sea represented the exercise of high seas freedoms, rather than a historic right, and that there was no evidence that China had historically exercised exclusive control over the waters of the South China Sea or prevented other States from exploiting their resources.
Accordingly, the Tribunal concluded that, as between the Philippines and China, there was no legal basis for China to claim historic rights to resources, in excess of the rights provided for by the Convention, within the sea areas falling within the ‘nine-dash line’.
b.The Status of Features in the South China Sea
In its Award of 12 July 2016, the Tribunal considered the status of features in the South China Sea and the entitlements to maritime areas that China could potentially claim pursuant to the Convention.
The Tribunal first undertook a technical evaluation as to whether certain coral reefs claimed by China are or are not above water at high tide. Under Articles 13 and 121 of the Convention, features that are above water at high tide generate an entitlement to at least a 12 nautical mile territorial sea, whereas features that are submerged at high tide generate no entitlement to maritime zones. The Tribunal noted that many of the reefs in the South China Sea have been heavily modified by recent land reclamation and construction and recalled that the Convention classifies features on the basis of their natural condition. The Tribunal appointed an expert hydrographer to assist it in evaluating the Philippines’ technical evidence and relied heavily on archival materials and historical hydrographic surveys in evaluating the features. The Tribunal agreed with the Philippines that Scarborough Shoal, Johnson Reef, Cuarteron Reef, and Fiery Cross Reef are high-tide features and that Subi Reef, Hughes Reef, Mischief Reef, and Second Thomas Shoal were submerged at high tide in their natural condition. However, the Tribunal disagreed with the Philippines regarding the status of Gaven Reef (North) and McKennan Reef and concluded that both are high tide features.
The Tribunal then considered whether any of the features claimed by China could generate an entitlement to maritime zones beyond 12 nautical miles. Under Article 121 of the Convention, islands generate an entitlement to an exclusive economic zone of 200 nautical miles and to a continental shelf, but “[r]ocks which cannot sustain human habitation or economic life of their own shall have no exclusive economic zone or continental shelf.” The Tribunal noted that this provision was closely linked to the expansion of coastal
State jurisdiction with the creation of the exclusive economic zone and was intended to prevent insignificant features from generating large entitlements to maritime zones that would infringe on the entitlements of inhabited territory or on the high seas and the area of the seabed reserved for the common heritage of mankind. The Tribunal interpreted Article 121 and concluded that the entitlements of a feature depend on (a) the objective capacity of a feature, (b) in its natural condition, to sustain either (c) a stable community of people or (d) economic activity that is neither dependent on outside resources nor purely extractive in nature.
The Tribunal noted that many of the features in the Spratly Islands are currently controlled by one or another of the littoral States, which have constructed installations and maintain personnel there. The Tribunal considered these modern presences to be dependent on outside resources and support and noted that many of the features have been modified to improve their habitability, including through land reclamation and the construction of infrastructure such as desalination plants. The Tribunal concluded that the current presence of official personnel on many of the features does not establish their capacity, in their natural condition, to sustain a stable community of people and considered that historical evidence of habitation or economic life was more relevant to the objective capacity of the features. Examining the historical record, the Tribunal noted that the Spratly Islands were historically used by small groups of fishermen from China, as well as other States, and that several Japanese fishing and guano mining enterprises were attempted in the 1920s and 1930s. The Tribunal concluded that temporary use of the features by fishermen did not amount to inhabitation by a stable community and that all of the historical economic activity had been extractive in nature. Accordingly, the Tribunal concluded that all of the high-tide features in the Spratly Islands (including, for example, Itu Aba, Thitu, West York Island, Spratly Island, North-East Cay, South-West Cay) are legally “rocks” that do not generate an exclusive economic zone or continental shelf.
The Tribunal also held that the Convention does not provide for a group of islands such as the Spratly Islands to generate maritime zones collectively as a unit.
c. Chinese Activities in the South China Sea
In its Award of 12 July 2016, the Tribunal considered the lawfulness under the Convention of various Chinese actions in the South China Sea. Having found that Mischief Reef, Second Thomas Shoal and Reed Bank are submerged at high tide, form part of the exclusive economic zone and continental shelf of the Philippines, and are not overlapped by any possible entitlement of China, the Tribunal concluded that the Convention is clear in allocating sovereign rights to the Philippines with respect to sea areas in its exclusive economic zone. The Tribunal found as a matter of fact that China had (a) interfered with Philippine petroleum exploration at Reed Bank, (b) purported to prohibit fishing by Philippine vessels within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, (c) protected and failed to prevent Chinese fishermen from fishing within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone at Mischief Reef and Second Thomas Shoal, and (d) constructed installations and artificial islands at Mischief Reef without the authorization of the Philippines. The Tribunal therefore concluded that China had violated the Philippines’ sovereign rights with respect to its exclusive economic zone and continental shelf.
The Tribunal next examined traditional fishing at Scarborough Shoal and concluded that fishermen from the Philippines, as well as fishermen from China and other countries, had long fished at the Shoal and had traditional fishing rights in the area. Because Scarborough Shoal is above water at high tide, it generates an entitlement to a territorial sea, its surrounding waters do not form part of the exclusive economic zone, and traditional fishing rights were not extinguished by the Convention. Although the Tribunal emphasized that it was not deciding sovereignty over Scarborough Shoal, it found that China had violated its duty to respect to the traditional fishing rights of Philippine fishermen by halting access to the Shoal after May 2012. The Tribunal noted, however, that it would reach the same conclusion with respect to the traditional fishing rights of Chinese fishermen if the Philippines were to prevent fishing by Chinese nationals at Scarborough Shoal. The Tribunal also considered the effect of China’s actions on the marine environment. In doing so, the Tribunal was assisted by three independent experts on coral reef biology who were appointed to assist it in evaluating the available scientific evidence and the Philippines’ expert reports. The Tribunal found that China’s recent large scale land reclamation and construction of artificial islands at seven features in the Spratly Islands has caused severe harm to the coral reef environment and that China has violated its obligation under Articles 192 and 194 of the Convention to preserve and protect the marine environment with respect to fragile ecosystems and the habitat of depleted, threatened, or endangered species. The Tribunal also found that Chinese fishermen have engaged in the harvesting of endangered sea turtles, coral, and giant clams on a substantial scale in the South China Sea, using methods that inflict severe damage on the coral reef environment. The Tribunal found that Chinese authorities were aware of these activities and failed to fulfill their due diligence obligations under the Convention to stop them.
Finally, the Tribunal considered the lawfulness of the conduct of Chinese law enforcement vessels at Scarborough Shoal on two occasions in April and May 2012 when Chinese vessels had sought to physically obstruct Philippine vessels from approaching or gaining entrance to the Shoal. In doing so, the Tribunal was assisted by an independent expert on navigational safety who was appointed to assist it in reviewing the written reports provided by the officers of the Philippine vessels and the expert evidence on navigational safety provided by the Philippines. The Tribunal found that Chinese law enforcement vessels had repeatedly approached the Philippine vessels at high speed and sought to cross ahead of them at close distances, creating serious risk of collision and danger to Philippine ships and personnel. The Tribunal concluded that China had breached its obligations under the Convention on the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea, 1972, and Article 94 the Convention concerning maritime safety.
d. Aggravation of the Dispute between the Parties
In its Award of 12 July 2016, the Tribunal considered whether China’s recent large-scale land reclamation and construction of artificial islands at seven features in the Spratly Islands since the commencement of the arbitration had aggravated the dispute between the Parties. The Tribunal recalled that there exists a duty on parties engaged in a dispute settlement procedure to refrain from aggravating or extending the dispute or disputes at issue during the pendency of the settlement process. The Tribunal noted that China has (a) built a large artificial island on Mischief Reef, a low-tide elevation located in the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines; (b) caused permanent, irreparable harm to the coral reef ecosystem and (c) permanently destroyed evidence of the natural condition of the features in question. The Tribunal concluded that China had violated its obligations to refrain from aggravating or extending the Parties’ disputes during the pendency of the settlement process.
e. Future Conduct of the Parties
Finally, the Tribunal considered the Philippines’ request for a declaration that, going forward, China shall respect the rights and freedoms of the Philippines and comply with its duties under the Convention. In this respect, the Tribunal noted that both the Philippines and China have repeatedly accepted that the Convention and general obligations of good faith define and regulate their conduct. The Tribunal considered that the root of the disputes at issue in this arbitration lies not in any intention on the part of China or the Philippines to infringe on the legal rights of the other, but rather in fundamentally different understandings of their respective rights under the Convention in the waters of the South China Sea. The Tribunal recalled that it is a fundamental principle of international law that bad faith is not presumed and noted that Article 11 of Annex VII provides that the “award . . . shall be complied with by the parties to the dispute.” The Tribunal therefore considered that no further declaration was necessary.