China invokes UNCLOS in claiming sovereignty over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands

by Duncan Hollis

I’m gearing up for a Spring Semester teaching at Temple’s Tokyo campus.  As part of my preparations, I’ve begun to read-into some of the maritime boundary disputes between China and Japan that have caused so much friction between the two nations of late.  Recent news reports have emphasized (i) China’s moves by air and sea to challenge Japanese control over waters surrounding what the Japanese refer to as the Senkaku Islands (or the Diaoyu Islands if you’re on China’s side) and (ii) how the new Japanese government may be more hawkish in responding to such measures.  So, perhaps it’s not surprising that China’s now also beginning to push its case legally, invoking UNCLOS’s provisions on delineating continental shelf rights beyond its 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone.

Specifically, UNCLOS Article 76 provides in paragraphs 7-9:

7. The coastal State shall delineate the outer limits of its continental shelf, where that shelf extends beyond 200 nautical miles from the baselines from which the breadth of the territorial sea is measured, by straight lines not exceeding 60 nautical miles in length, connecting fixed points, defined by coordinates of latitude and longitude.

8. Information on the limits of the continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles from the baselines from which the breadth of the territorial sea is measured shall be submitted by the coastal State to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf set up under Annex II on the basis of equitable geographical representation. The Commission shall make recommendations to coastal States on matters related to the establishment of the outer limits of their continental shelf. The limits of the shelf established by a coastal State on the basis of these recommendations shall be final and binding.

9. The coastal State shall deposit with the Secretary-General of the United Nations charts and relevant information, including geodetic data, permanently describing the outer limits of its continental shelf. The Secretary-General shall give due publicity thereto.

China submitted its initial continental shelf claim in 2009.  This past Friday, December 14, China provided an additional “partial submission” on its claims to the East China Sea.  Here’s the key take-away from that submission:

The geomorphological and geological features show that the continental shelf in the East China Sea (hereinafter referred to as “ECS”) is the natural prolongation of China’s land territory, and the Okinawa Trough is an important geomorphological unit with prominent cutoff characteristics, which is the termination to where the continental shelf of ECS extends.  The continental shelf in ECS extends beyond 200 nautical miles from the baselines from which the breadth of the territorial sea of China is measured.

You can access the full text of China’s submission here (and, if you’re interested, you can also read  Japan’s earlier submissions or see here for the Japanese Foreign Ministry’s take).

I don’t hold out much hope that UNCLOS or the Continental Shelf Commission will actually determine a resolution to this on-going dispute.  But, I am hopeful that China’s move to legal argumentation may give both sides a forum in which cooler heads can prevail, in stark contrast to other existing fora where things have gotten quite heated (see, e.g., the Japanese government’s move to buy the islands, or the scrambling of military aircraft to respond to Chinese vessels transiting the territory).  In any case, the legal and political ramifications of this dispute clearly will bear close watching.

Comments are closed.