Thanks Climate Change: Sea-Level Rise Could End South China Sea Spat  (Page 2 of 2)

The Claimants and the Limits of UNCLOS

The current SCS claimants are backed by a myriad of border treaties and historical claims that stretch back at least the past millennia.  However; since 1982, the United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) has emerged as the most important and recent forum to resolve or counter these claims.  For its part, China signed onto UNCLOS in 1994 and recently defended its claims in the SCS as “indisputable sovereignty” over the area.  As a background, UNCLOS’s boundaries are based solely on land that is “above” sea-level on a 24-hour basis.  A baseline is commonly referred to as coterminous with a low water mark running along the coast.  From these “dry” baseline boundaries, exclusive economic zones (EEZ) are allowed to extend for up to 200 nautical miles (roughly 230 miles).  Features, such as reefs, are generally limited to just territorial sea area (up to 12 nautical miles or roughly 14 miles).  Islands, on the other hand, are generally defined as having fresh water and, as such, are entitled to territorial sea, plus the rights of the EEZ.

But what makes the SCS territorial dispute so difficult is that many of these competing zones and claims overlap one-another precisely because of the separate island claims that speckle the SCS.  While Part XV of the convention does provide legal mechanisms for the arbitration of disputes as they arise, there is nothing laying out exactly how to proceed if these islands were to become partially or permanently flooded-over.  All current developments aside, after decades of contention, the territorial rights of the SCS are no closer to being resolved.  It could be a few more decades before the claims are resolved and by then the area may be completely submerged.  One would think that the treaty’s signatories would have included provisions to address this eventuality.  Yet, they did not.

Drowning Claims

With imminent sea-level rise on the horizon, the low-lying islands of the SCS will likely disappear; thus jeopardizing the framework of this pivotal convention, while scuttling the various claims.  For the Chinese, a tremendous amount of EEZ-based territory would be potentially lost as underscored by their infamous nine-dash line that dips deep into the SCS.  In the background of rising sea level, it would behoove China to consolidate and legitimize its claims soon, either through diplomatic means or force, rather than later.  This would likewise be true for the other claimants.

There are various alternate solutions for China and the other claimants to follow.  One simple and probable solution would be to continue to build-up and structurally reinforce their present claims in the Spratly or Paracel Islands against rising waters.  This scenario would basically keep the status quo.  Yet, this may not be attainable in the short term given the recent events in the SCS and East China Sea.

Alternatively, if the claimants were completely flooded out and each used their territorial baselines, the simplicity of the 200-mile EEZ baselines might make the situation more distinct on the maps and easier for the international community to arbitrate. Though this might not necessarily make the territorial claims that much more palatable or acceptable to any of the parties involved, including China.  Unfortunately the Bangkok Climate Change Conference at the end of August did not offer the claimants an opportunity to address any of these possibilities in regards to UNCLOS.  In the end, as the scenario in the SCS continues to play out, it may augur well for other sea level vulnerable littoral and island nations, as well as anticipating the burgeoning claims in the Arctic.

Wilson VornDick is a Lieutenant Commander in the U.S. Navy where he is assigned to the Pentagon. Previously he worked at the Chinese Maritime Studies Institute at the U.S. Naval War College. This piece reflects the author’s opinions, not the official assessments of the U.S. Navy or any other Government entity.

September 18, 2013 at 01:15

This is a bit ironic. Politboro and their family and cronies can disregard even their very own Chinese laws. What more for international laws that they abhor because China never had any input in them?

September 18, 2013 at 01:06

Sorry for the very late reply but ALWAYS?! Even before the ancient Chinese Empire reached the shores of the SCS, our Malay-speaking ancestors sailed the bloody sea among many others and had already settled the islands sorrounding it. You know, the sea-faring people that stretched out from Madagascar in the west to the many islands of the Pacific in the east?

May 3, 2013 at 00:29

It will be interesting to see how China can 'lawyer' up with regards to these claims through UNCLOS or other organizations. I look forward to seeing your dissertation on how climate change impacts territorial disputes.

Francesco Zaratin
December 16, 2012 at 19:58

Quite interesting to know the influence of climate change on the contended reefs in the South China Sea, primarily because it makes one understand that all the fuss is basically about a couple of rocks on the verge of being submerged, thus the true objective is what allegedly lies beneath those rocks (oil and gas).
On the other hand I don't completely agree with the author's conclusion that the reefs being about to disappear, the dispute will be rushed in order to call upon UNCLOS to reaffirm claims. I have written a dissertation in which I analysed China's behaviour in the South China Sea dispute. According to my findings:
1 – China's claims are not based primarily on UNCLOS. The code has been used just instrumentally by the PRC in some chosen occasion, the main grounds for claims being instead historical.
and, most of all,
2 –  Even part XV of the code does not provide a detailed procedure for legal procedures in case of a dispute like that of SCS, simply stating that the dispute should be solved between the claimants, without outside intervention. Plus, there are no previous cases to inspire to. 
If something is to be done about the dispute, is to work on UNCLOS on an international level and find a detailed set of rules suitable for the situation and for other analogue situations in the future. 

China's Gutter Oil
December 15, 2012 at 00:48

"That's what I have experienced from all native English-speaking people I know, when they corrected my English."
Dude, ENGLISH-SPEAKING people are not after your grammar, they're after your 'PRONUNCIATION AND ENUNCIATION'…. why don't you try to try to pronounce 'FRIED RICE' instead of ' FLIED LIES'…. you know what I MEAN? :0

China's Gutter Oil
December 15, 2012 at 00:38

@Nutcase Doc & Pseudo Kim
…and you're a certified 50-cent whore! thievery and corruption is a way of life in china! geez, get a life! 
i know for a fact that the only thing that  the  Chinese can't steal is DEMOCRACY! 

Maureen Kris
December 15, 2012 at 00:02

It makes sense that these waters would fall under international jurisdiction should the waters rise above dry land levels. This may ultimately bring about greater political tensions within international bodies as more and more decision-making falls within their purview.

Asu Peartea
November 24, 2012 at 15:39

On that basis we should dig out all of the treaties between the USA and Native Americans and give back the whole continent to them. Ditto South America, Europe back to the Celtcs, the entire Balkin Peninsula to the Turks, Greatest Rome to the current Romans, all of western Europe to the catholic church’s chosen rulers, Persia/Assyria/Mesopotamia to their “rightful” owners. Pick a time in history and we could massively redraw all the maps in the world

Asu Peartea
November 24, 2012 at 15:28

265 million years ago the sea level was 60-65 meters higher than it is today. The changes that have already occured in the Anthrpocene, human period, are about 20% of what caused that massive sea level rise. See: Discovery on the BBC for further info.

Asu Peartea
November 24, 2012 at 15:19

Ah, the East Sea of Vietnam. Doesn’t a name coming from another country and culture with it’s own extremely long history add an interesting perspective. How can the Chinese lay claim to the East Sea of Vietnam if it’s not even got the name China in it. I propose that all international map use this name and then China would certainly have no claim. (NOTE: tongue in cheek humor here)

Asu Peartea
November 24, 2012 at 15:13

UNCLOS is international law not Chinese.

Asu Peartea
November 24, 2012 at 15:11

Going back to my comments to Nirvana’s, anything predicated on the idea that the Chinese care about anything in international law is to ridiculously ass-u-me things already frequently disproven by history.

Asu Peartea
November 24, 2012 at 15:05

You’ve got it right. China has no respect for international law as it has repeatedly shown. The signing a treaty is only to gain further advantages and the limits are ignored. WTO is the perfect example. China has violated the WTO in so many ways that I can’t even begin, but it did secure access to many markets.

US Calvary Vs "Indians" Of The East
November 14, 2012 at 15:41

It IS a Chinese lake.  It has ALWAYS been a Chinese.  And well the littoral countries know that for centuries and millenias.  It is only only the US encouraging a change to this understanding.  And that's where the clash will be.  Proxies or otherwise, if Washington does not keep its nose out of other countries' business.
"Rebalance"? "Pivot"?  My foot it is!  More like the US calvary trying to contain the Chinese "reservation" and even lay siege to it.  With the hope it will become its cheap workers and traders with no say in its own foreign policy.  A second class global national or country like everyone else, save for the US.
And that's where the conflict begins.

November 13, 2012 at 08:08

America may be next. I am sure the Chinese know that there is something called China Lake in the US. Let's draw a 200-mile territory around the lake and be prepared to hand over the land or risking war with China. 

Hu Yaobang Bang Bang
November 10, 2012 at 12:50

Sad but true. Every dollar that ordinary consumers spend on a product made in China only contributes to more Chinese-made bullets, missiles, gunboats and bombs that China can use to bully its neighbors.

Perhaps we should all seriously consider avoiding products made in China, as much as we can.

While it would be almost impossible to completely live without items made in China (or items with parts and components made in China) due to their ubiquity, a conscious effort by every pro-democracy person on the face of the planet may be enough to avert more aggressive bullying by the PRC of its neighbors.

It is also worth noting that a number of China's neighbors have treaty alliances with the US. Any threat of military confrontation between China and a neighbor that is allied with the US would put American servicemen and women in an awkward position, to say the least. It may be in their best interests for friends and relatives of American servicemen and women to avoid buying products made in the PRC if they can.

The stronger the PRC is economically, the more brash and assertive they seem to become. Avoiding products made in the PRC may help cool down the Chinese economy just enough to keep their leaders a bit less hawkish.
Of course the more cynical may say that if the Chinese economy does cool down then Chinese factories will emit less pollution and cause less global warming. Whether climate change is caused by human carbon emissions or not though, it would be very interesting to see what would happen if every pro-democracy person in the world would seriously consider avoiding PRC-made products as much as they can.

Many thanks!

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