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The Effect of the Award on the South China Sea Disputes

Legality of Maritime Claims within the Nine-Dash Line

If the Tribunal rules that China cannot make any maritime claims based on the nine-dash line and can only do so based on the positions of its islands, China would be under a legal obligation to bring its maritime claims into conformity with UNCLOS and claim rights and jurisdiction over resources only in maritime zones measured from islands over which it claims sovereignty. This would cast a dark shadow on the legitimacy of any claims made by China to resources in the maritime space within the nine-dash line that are not within a maritime zone claimed from an island.

As a matter of law, such a decision would be binding only on the two parties to the case. However, such a ruling would greatly benefit Brunei Darussalam, Malaysia, Vietnam, and even Indonesia, as the nine-dash line also overlaps with their EEZ claims.

Issues Concerning Islands and Rocks

One of the other important issues raised in the case is whether the islands occupied by China are rocks within Article 121(3) and entitled to a 12 nautical miles territorial sea, but not to an EEZ or continental shelf. Such a ruling would greatly benefit the Philippines, especially in the case of Scarborough Shoal, which is located in waters within the EEZ of the Philippines. It consists mostly of a submerged reef which contains 4-6 small rocks that are permanently above water at high tide. If the Tribunal held as a matter of law that these features are rocks within Article 121(3) and entitled only to a 12 nautical miles territorial sea, it would give the Philippines the sovereign right to explore and exploit all of the natural resources in and under the waters beyond 12 nautical miles from the rocks.

The broader significance of the Tribunal's decision on Article 121(3) will depend on the Tribunal's reasoning. The Tribunal could decide to rule only on whether the small islands occupied by China are rocks within Article 121(3), and confine its decision to the precise characteristics of those islands. This would leave open the question of whether any of the larger islands in the Spratlys (which are claimed by China but occupied by others) might in principle be entitled to an EEZ and continental shelf of their own. This would enable China to claim an EEZ and continental shelf from the larger islands, which would result in a fairly large area of overlapping EEZ claims.

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