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130717 Poling Southchinasea Web Essay

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JULY 2013

The South China
Sea in Focus
Clarifying the Limits of Maritime Dispute

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Gregory B. Poling
A Report of the CSIS Sumitro Chair
for Southeast Asia Studies


The South China
Sea in Focus
Clarifying the Limits of Maritime Dispute

Gregory B. Poling
A Report of the CSIS Sumitro Chair
for Southeast Asia Studies
July 2013

Lanham • Boulder • New York • Toronto • Plymouth, UK

About CSIS—50th Anniversary Year
For 50 years, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) has developed solutions to the world’s greatest policy challenges. As we celebrate this milestone, CSIS scholars are developing strategic insights and bipartisan policy solutions to help decisionmakers chart a course toward a better world.

CSIS is a nonprofit organi zation headquartered in Washington, D.C. The Center’s 220 full-time staff and large network of affi liated scholars conduct research and analysis and develop policy initiatives that look into the future and anticipate change. Founded at the height of the Cold War by David M. Abshire and Admiral Arleigh Burke, CSIS was dedicated to fi nding ways to sustain American prominence and prosperity as a force for good in the world. Since 1962, CSIS has become one of the world’s preeminent international institutions focused on defense and security; regional stability; and transnational challenges ranging from energy and climate to global health and economic integration.

Former U.S. senator Sam Nunn has chaired the CSIS Board of Trustees since 1999. Former deputy secretary of defense John J. Hamre became the Center’s president and chief executive officer in April 2000.

CSIS does not take specific policy positions; accordingly, all views expressed herein should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
© 2013 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved. Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
CIP information available on request.
ISBN: 978-1- 4422-2485- 8 (pb); 978-1- 4422-2486-5 (eBook)

Center for Strategic & International Studies
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202-887-0200 |

Rowman & Littlefield
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Acknowledg ments


Abbreviations and Acronyms
Executive Summary
1 Background




Ambiguity: The Enemy of Progress
The Path Forward


2 Identifying the Claims
The Textbook Version



The Philippines




Continental Shelves versus EEZs
3 Clarifying the Dispute
Defi ning Islands



The Area of Legal Dispute




Appendix: Classification of Islands and Rocks
About the Author




Acknowledg ments


nly in recent years has sufficient information entered the public domain to make an analysis like this by a nonprofit think tank possible. There is a community of people around the globe performing legal and geospatial analyses of the South China Sea disputes—more than I can name here— and their contributions to the field were invaluable while completing this project.

I would like to thank CSIS Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies Ernest Bower and the Chair’s deputy director, Murray Hiebert, for seeing the value in this project and facilitating it. I would also like to thank my colleagues Mary Beth Jordan, Elke Larsen, and Kathleen Rustici. This report was made possible by the initial research of Kiet Nguyen at CSIS, as well as by the talents of Michael Mahoney and Sohayla Pruitt at Digital Globe. I am also grateful to Alison Bours and James Dunton for this report’s production. Finally, I would like to extend a special thanks to the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency for generously supporting this project.

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Abbreviations and Acronyms

Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf
China National Offshore Oil Corporation
exclusive economic zone
International Court of Justice
International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea
United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea


Executive Summary


he complexity of maritime and territorial disputes in the South China Sea is nothing short of mind-numbing. They involve six countries— Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam— hundreds of tiny land features, and a body of international law that is both contested and complicated to interpret. The result has been decades of impasse. But it is an impasse that this report seeks to take a small step toward breaking.

The overlapping claims to the islands and smaller land features in the sea are unresolvable in the short to medium term. There is nothing in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to resolve sovereignty disputes over land and no chance that the claimants will submit their claims to the International Court of Justice or another arbitration body. The good faith and willingness to make concessions that would be needed to negotiate the claims to the features do not exist.

But the fact that the land disputes in the South China Sea are unalterable does not mean that the disputes over its waters are as well. UNCLOS has nothing to say on the territorial disputes, but it has plenty to say about the maritime disagreements. Maritime claims under international law are determined by sovereignty over land, so as long as there are disputes over the land features of the South China Sea, there will be disputes over the waters. But that does not mean that the area of dispute cannot be clarified. And that clarification is critical to managing tensions in the region.

This report blends analysis of maritime law, satellite imagery, public source data, and geographic information systems to clarify the areas under dispute. The result is the following map, which shows the maximum area of the South China Sea that is legally in dispute. This map and all others printed in this report are approximations of shapefi les created by the author. For those looking for greater accuracy or to perform analyses of their own, all of the shapefi les are available for download at /program /south-china-sea-high -resolution.

This map differs significantly from those charts most often used to depict the South China Sea dispute, and the methodology used to create it is explained at length in this report. But the most important differences are that it is smaller than China’s infamous “nine- dash line” map depicting its claim and that it is founded entirely on international

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Figure 1. Maximum area of legal dispute

law. Those differences are key to fi nding a workable means of managing the South China Sea disputes.
The best and likely only real hope of tamping down tensions in the absence of an actual settlement of claims in the South China Sea is joint development of the disputed resources. This must include both fisheries and oil and gas resources. Rivalry over these resources has been the immediate cause of most of the policing incidents, military clashes, and arrests of fishermen in the sea in recent years. Any successful effort to jointly develop resources must include China, the heavy hitter in the area and the provocateur of most episodes of violence in recent years.

Of course, it is impossible to develop disputed resources jointly if the claimants cannot agree on what is disputed. And in this area Beijing is the odd man out. Thanks to the purposeful ambiguity of China’s claims, Beijing essentially classifies any resources it wants as


Figure 2. China National Offshore Oil Corporation blocks

lying within disputed waters. Fellow claimants are, naturally, unwilling to offer joint development of resources just miles off their shores when China will not do the same. This is especially true when the area allegedly under dispute unambiguously falls under the sovereignty of one or another claimant under international law. China’s insistence that essentially all the waters in the South China Sea fall within its jurisdiction, without providing any legal rationale, has led to several disputes over oil and gas concessions. For instance, on June 25, 2012, the state- owned China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) responded to ongoing tensions with Vietnam by declaring nine new offshore oil and gas blocks open for bids from foreign companies. The blocks were off the coast of Vietnam, and the closest was located 230 nautical miles from China. All nine


Figure 3. Philippine and Vietnamese blocks

also overlapped with blocks previously created by Vietnam and leased to foreign companies, including ExxonMobil. By simply overlaying these blocks with the map of the maximum legal dispute, it is obvious that CNOOC has no basis to claim most of the area that it put out for bid. A few months earlier, on February 29, 2012, the Philippines had invited foreign companies to take part in its long awaited fourth energy contracting round. This round opened bidding on 15 oil and gas blocks, two of which—Areas 3 and 4— drew protests from Beijing. Even though the blocks were just off the Philippine coast and hundreds of miles from China, Beijing claimed they were within its legal maritime jurisdiction. However, Figure 3 shows that the vast majority of oil and gas blocks created by Vietnam and the Philippines, including Areas 3 and 4, lie entirely in undisputed waters. Rights to oil and gas is only one aspect of the South China Sea dispute that is clarified by determining the maximum area of legal dispute, but it is one of par ticu lar importance. It is also accurately treated as the keystone of potential joint development in the area. If joint development is not restricted to the disputed area, along the lines shown in Figure 3, it will never get off the ground.


Chapter 1 of this report provides an introduction to the South China Sea disputes and argues for the necessity of clarifying claims.
Chapter 2 maps the legal claims of each of the claimant countries, without taking into consideration the unresolvable land features in the sea.
Chapter 3 introduces the impact of the unresolvable land features on the claims and determines the maximum area of legal dispute.





he South China Sea is the site of one of the globe’s most contentious, and probably its most complicated, sovereignty disputes. Six countries—Brunei, China, Malaysia, the

Figure 4. The South China Sea claimants1

1. This map and all others printed in this report are approximations of shapefi les created by the author. For those looking for greater accuracy or to perform analyses of their own, all of the shapefi les are available for download at /program /south-china-sea-high-resolution.

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Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam—maintain overlapping claims to the waters and tiny land features of the sea. The dispute has flared hot and cold for decades, most often between China on the one hand and one or more of the other claimants on the other. This is because China’s claims are by far the most extensive.

The current round of tensions in the South China Sea can be traced to the 2009 joint submission to the United Nations by Vietnam and Malaysia of a section of their extended continental shelves in the area. 2 China responded by submitting an objection to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) decrying Viet namese and Malaysian infringement of its claims, which it defi ned via an ambiguous map that encompassed nearly the entire sea. 3 This claim was depicted in the now-infamous ninedash line map.

Ambiguity: The Enemy of Progress
Ambiguity over the claims in the South China Sea does not serve anyone’s interests. All the claimants are guilty of failing to fully clarify their claims according to international law, but the most ambiguous by far are Beijing’s positions. It is important to note the use of the plural “positions,” because there is scant agreement as to what precisely the Chinese position is. In fact, Chinese policy amounts to avoiding taking a position at all costs. Without a defi ned Chinese pos...

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