On March 10, Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo signed the Philippines Archipelagic Baselines Law, which incorporates within Philippine territory parts of the Spratly Islands and the Scarborough or Panatag Shoal, known in Taiwan and China as Huangyan Island (黃岩島), in the South China Sea. This law has provoked opposition from other countries around the South China Sea.
In consideration of complaints from China, Vietnam and Taiwan, the Philippines sought to avoid arguments about the Spratys by including only the relatively uncontroversial Benham Rise region, which lies to the east of the Philippine archipelago, in the claim it submitted to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) on April 8.
Manila’s move prompted Vietnam and Malaysia to make a joint submission to the CLCS on May 6 outlining their respective outer limit claims over the continental shelf in the southern part of the South China Sea.
In their submission, Vietnam and Malaysia admitted that disputes exist about parts of the continental shelf they claim, but they said they were willing to resolve the disputes through negotiations, as laid out in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). They also declared that their claim was not intended to conflict with territorial boundaries between other countries. They said they had tried to secure the non-objection of countries around the South China Sea, however, they did not consult Taiwan, China or the Philippines with regard to the Spratlys, nor have they made an effort to seek a peaceful resolution. On the contrary, they have both built fortifications on the islands they occupy.
The limits of Vietnam and Malaysia’s territorial claims extend 200 nautical miles (370km) from their respective baselines. The two countries’ claims do not overlap. The southernmost basepoint on which Vietnam bases its outer limit claim is N 6° 30’ 50.7” (six degrees 30 minutes 50.7 seconds north) by E 109° 44’ 55.2” (109 degrees 44 minutes 55.2 seconds east), roughly southeast of the mouth of the Mekong River. To the north it extends to N 9° 30’ 15.4” by E 112° 25’ 40.3”, southeast of the port of Vung Tau.
The southernmost basepoint on which Malaysia bases its boundary claim is N 6° 18’ 11” by E 109° 36’ 45”, from which it extends northeast to N 8° 53’ 38.6” by E 113° 34’ 7.6”. The continental shelf limit claimed by Malaysia was based on the maritime territorial baselines of Sabah and Sarawak, without taking into account Brunei, which is sandwiched in the middle. Brunei did not participate in Vietnam and Malaysia’s claim, so one might ask whether the claim infringes on Brunei’s interests.
The joint claim also delimits the outer edge of the continental margin. Its southernmost point is N 11° 49’ 51.8” by E 112° 47’ 13”, extending northward to N 12° 43’ 1.1” by E 116° 12’ 41.7”. This area should, for the most part, belong to Vietnam rather than Malaysia.
The outer edge of the continental margin is demarked according to Article 76 (4) (a) (ii) of the UNCLOS, its fixed points being no more than 60 nautical miles (111km) away from the start of the continental slope.
Both Vietnam and Malaysia set their continental shelf outer limit claims by extending their territory 200 nautical miles from the maritime territorial baselines adjacent to their actual coastlines, not from islands and reefs they occupy in the South China Sea. However, this has no influence on their actual occupation of those islands and reefs. Their somewhat wishful intention is to make further territorial claims over waters, contiguous areas and sections of the continental shelf around the islands they occupy.
On May 7, Vietnam reiterated its claim of sovereignty and rights of dominion and jurisdiction over the Paracels, Spratlys and some 3,000 islands and reefs scattered around the South China Sea. This claim by Vietnam clearly conflicts with Taiwan’s territorial claims over the Paracels and Spratlys.
In falling over themselves to enact maritime territory laws and submit their claims to the UN, the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia have made very clear their ambitions for dividing the Spratlys among themselves. In view of this, Taiwan should work faster on legislating its own claim to the Spratlys.
Chen Hurng-yu is chair of the Graduate Institute of Southeast Asian Studies at Tamkang University.
TRANSLATED BY JULIAN CLEGG
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