Two hundred nautical miles (370km). That is how much adjacent ocean – and whatever else happens to be in it – each coastal country can claim as its own territory, as defined by the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The official name for these ocean territories are Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs).
One of the principle situations when this ruling has made an appearance in recent years has involved the underwater search for resources, especially oil and gas deposits. The South China Sea has quickly become one of the key battlegrounds for testing the strength and flexibility of this rule, as several Asian nations squabble over whose territory the South China Sea falls into, and therefore, who stands to benefit from the extraction of those fossil fuels.
While the islands off northern Taiwan in the East China Sea (Senkaku if you are Japanese, Diaoyutai if you are Chinese) have hit the headlines most prominently, disputes in the South China Sea have primarily focused on the Spratly Islands, a collection of over 750 reefs, atolls and islands scattered across the sea, and claimed in part or in full by six different countries; China, Taiwan, Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Vietnam.
China is going one step further than the rest in its quest to claim ownership of the whole sea; reclaiming new land around the Spratly Islands. New satellite footage has now revealed the extent to which these land reclamation projects have progressed.
The above images show how Gaven Reef, which used to be above water only at low tide, has developed from shallow reefs in March 2014, into 75,000 sq metres of fully established land by January 2015. Similar development have been sighted at numerous neighbouring reefs, including Johnson South Reef, located only 194 nautical miles from the island of Palawan in the Philippines. Analysts report that the new islands are home to piers, airstrips, buildings, and various other facilities.
Last month, Lieutenant General Gregorio Pio Catapang of the Philippines claimed that China’s island developments were ‘50 per cent complete’. The Philippines is currently awaiting the verdict of a complaint submitted via the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS), arguing that China has breached the UNCLOS, of which both countries are signatories. The ITLOS will decide its verdict in late 2015 or early 2016.
While countries are fully entitled to construct artificial islands within their own EEZs, it is unclear whether China’s actions, significantly more than 200 nautical miles from the Chinese shore, justify legitimate ownership of the surrounding waters of the South China Sea. The UNCLOS clearly states that: ‘Artificial islands, installations and structures do not possess the status of islands. They have no territorial sea of their own, and their presence does not affect the delimitation of the territorial sea, the exclusive economic zone or the continental shelf.’
China’s claims to the South China Sea date back as far as 1947, when what was then the Republic of China issued its infamous ‘11-dotted line’; a map showing what the government of the time believed to be rightfully China’s territory. Although China as a country has undergone many significant changes during the past sixty-eight years, that line and claimed territory has remained largely unchanged.