NEVER has three million sq km of water caused so much trouble to so many as the South China Sea has.
One would have thought that the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s (PCA) ruling on July 12, 2016 against China’s “nine-dash line” claim would have put an end to it. Not so for China. And the reason is simple.
The PCA ruled: there was no legal basis for China to claim historic rights within the sea areas falling within the “nine-dash line.”
The nine-dash line — literally nine dashes stretching south from China and encircling almost all of the South China Sea — is based on a map drawn in 1940.
The narrative behind the cartography is that the Chinese have been roaming the South China Sea since the Ming Dynasty. This the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) does not support.
The PCA’s ruling, it must be said, is a correct reading of international maritime laws.
There is a more bizarre reason for China’s claim. Beijing says the mere fact that the body of water is named South China Sea shows that it belongs to China.
This is troubling, not just to the best of the maritime legal minds around the world, but to the long-established concept of sovereignty.
Dr Mohd Hazmi Mohd Rusli, an associate professor of law at Universiti Sains Islam Malaysia who has written extensively on UNCLOS, says China’s argument doesn’t hold water.
If we follow China’s argument to its logical conclusion, he argues, “then the Straits of Malacca should belong to Malaysia, Straits of Singapore to Singapore, the Indian Ocean to India and the Persian Gulf to Iran.”
Talk of turning the concept of sovereignty on its head!
The New Sunday Times yesterday frontpaged Malaysia’s maritime claim thus: ‘Spratlys Irrefutably Ours’.
There are reasons aplenty for this screaming headline. And they are all within the four corners of UNCLOS. Let’s just take three.
Article 3 of UNCLOS makes it very clear that a coastal state can claim up to 12 nautical miles (about 22km) of territorial sea from the baseline of its coast.
Here the coastal state has absolute sovereignty over the territorial sea which consists of the seabed and marine waters.
UNCLOS also allows any coastal state to claim up to 200 nautical miles (370km) of Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), otherwise known as the fishing zone.
Unlike the territorial sea, the EEZ doesn’t come with the sea bed. For this we have to turn to what UNCLOS calls the “continental shelf.” Here like in the EEZ, a coastal state can exercise sovereign rights (as opposed to sovereignty over territorial sea) to extract minerals from the seabed up to 200 nautical miles of the continental shelf .
This is the very same law that gives Malaysia the right to stake its claim to Spratlys. All the signatories to UNCLOS must abide by it.
Are the Spratlys irrefutably ours? Unmistakably so, is our response. Yes, the constellation of more than 750 islands, cays, reefs and shoals that make up the Spratlys archipelago is unambiguously Malaysia’s.
Because every one of it is within the 200 nautical-mile limit of Malaysia’s EEZ and continental shelf.