UNCLOS and the China – Philippines standoff over Scarborough Shoal

China, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam each claim competing sovereignty over areas in the South China Sea.

You may have heard about the current standoff between China and the Philippines, near the Scarborough Shoal area.  Here is an excerpt from a BBC News article yesterday – China needs a ”consistent policy” on the South China Sea:

China’s claim includes almost the entire South China Sea, well into what the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea recognises as the 200-mile-from-shore Exclusive Economic Zones of other claimants.

That has led to occasional flare-ups and to competition to occupy islands, reefs and sandbars.

The latest incident sparked when a Philippines warship found eight Chinese fishing vessels at the Scarborough shoal – which both sides claim – when it was patrolling the area on 8 April.

When navy personnel boarded the Chinese fishing vessels, they found a large amount of illegally-caught fish and coral, Manila said.

Two Chinese surveillance ships then arrived in the area, preventing the navy from making arrests.

Attempts to resolve the stand-off have not yet been successful. The Philippine warship has been replaced by a coast guard vessel and the Chinese fishermen have gone, but two Chinese vessels remain there.

China has also expressed anger at the annual US-Philippines military exercises, due to run until 27 April.

This year they are taking place off Palawan, near the disputed Spratly islands which both Manila and Beijing claim. The joint exercises involve some 7,000 troops, including more than 4,000 from the US.

With China asserting its claims more aggressively the US has been strengthening old friendships in the region, says the BBC’s John Sudworth reporting from the South China Sea on the exercises.  Read more…

I’ve heard something about this  “200 nautical miles” rule before, but did not know the history.  Apparently, it is based on the United Nations (UN) Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), an international agreement also known as the Law of the Sea Treaty.

Looking at the map above, it seems rather clear — especially regarding the Scarborough Shoals — that this area belongs in the Philippine “exclusive economic zone” under UNCLOS definitions.  China is claiming a very large area as “territorial waters”.

The current UNCLOS III treaty came into force in 1994,  replacing earlier treaties UNCLOS I and UNCLOS II (though the concept of national rights of a nation’s coastlines dates back to the 17th century).

UNCLOS III covers exclusive economic zones (see below graphic), navigation, archipelagic status and transit regimes, continental shelf jurisdiction, deep seabed mining, protection of the marine environment, scientific research, and settlement of disputes.

United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)

Related Links:

United Nations – Oceans and Law of the Sea: Historical Perspective on UNCLOS

East Sea (South China Sea) Studies – All for one, one for all: promoting economic activities in the South China Sea, by Nazery Khalid.

Palawan-based blogger Alex Pronove’s latest post: Sun-Tzu – The Art of War, and President Aquino (and the standoff at Scarborough Shoal)

18 thoughts on “UNCLOS and the China – Philippines standoff over Scarborough Shoal

  1. Thanks for the informative post Jane. China is probing and poking. It knows it can push the Philippines around but it doesn’t know how the U.S. will respond.

    The diagram depicting the various boundaries and your concise explanation of UNCLOS were helpful.

    • I appreciate your comments Alex.

      With the U.S – Philippines military exercises happening close to your new hometown there in Palawan, there must be a lot of interesting activities near you at the moment.


  2. I’m a first year political science student and know about this information you have given.

    I would like to add more info… China could not claim sovereignty over the Spratly group of islands because that will make their territory bigger because their low water mark will start at the Spratly group of islands and then if you will start your territorial sea, contiguous, EEZ it will claim territory over the Philippines too — so that is so funny 🙂

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  4. UNCLOS is subsumed to historical claim. Open up your Atlas see the territorial water of GREECE extended way up to the shore of bigger neighbour TURKEY , which is recognised by EU, US, UN even TURKEY herself!!!!!

    • That is interesting Joseph. The geography of Turkey and Greece is a lot different, and Turkey has historically objected to Greece’s claims. The issues related to UNCLOS is ongoing and not completely resolved by these two countries.

      With regard to China’s claim of territorial waters (see map included in this post) — does this look fair to you, in terms of the modern world that we live in, as well as the other countries that would be affected in this part of the world?

      It seems like an equitable, fair access that balances the rights and interest of countries should be the guiding principles here, otherwise, war could erupt over a bunch of rocks…or in this case, sandbars (though we know the issues are the resources near, under, and around the Scarborough Shoal).

      We often forget that it is ONE planet, ONE world that we all must SHARE, and live in, and perhaps stepping back and remembering that, we can work together towards strategies that result in a good future for everyone.

    • “UNCLOS is subsumed to historical claim. Open up your Atlas see the territorial water of GREECE extended way up to the shore of bigger neighbour TURKEY , which is recognised by EU, US, UN even TURKEY herself!”

      And it has only been in the very recent past (i.e., within the past ten years) that China has developed the balls to assert its claim.

      Any country can claim an entire body of water as its own. Chinese traders did cross the South China Sea in previous centuries. Today’s China is now trumpeting that fact–that its people crossed it in centuries past–to claim that body of water as its own.

      That’s to be expected. China has the will and the might to enforce its claim. This controversy isn’t about moral rectitude (i.e., moral righteousness or fair play); it’s about superior force. That’s why I believe that this dispute will lead to a limited shooting war. (There will be shooting but it will not go that far.)

      China is going up against America. We live in the age of Pax Americana.

      (Have you heard of Pax Romana? It refers to the long period of relative stability in the historical world, which at that time was the Mediterranean, brought about by the presence of the Roman Empire. Here’s a link to get you started: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pax_Romana)

      Assuming that America does not lose militarily to China, Pax Americana will dictate the limit of China’s expansion.

      The conflict has already begun.

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  11. I am extremely happy to find this post in the internet.
    Tomorrow, I will be discussing the territorial dispute of our national territory in the class.
    This post is very informative and useful. I am glad I found it here.

    Thanks a lot.

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Now that you are here, I would love to know what you think...comments are always appreciated.