South China Sea: Itu Aba Might Be Key to Philippines v. China

By John Ford / April 30, 2016 / The Diplomat

A decision is expected next month in the case of Philippines v. China, currently before the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague. While we do not know what the court will rule it does seem how the Court decides to dispose of the issue of Itu Aba will be critical in deciding what the real world impact of the case is.

thediplomat_2014-06-13_14-00-57-386x197When the Court accepted jurisdiction over the case, it made clear that it would not be deciding which country owned the various disputed maritime features of the Spratly Island chain. The court will be deciding whether China’s nine-dash line violates international law, and this is the issue that has received the bulk of the media coverage of the case.

But there is another issue the Court is expected to rule on that will matter nearly as much. While the Court won’t be deciding whether any of the disputed features belong to China or the Philippines, it is expected to decide what maritime entitlements each feature in the Spratlys is entitled to. It remains disputed whether the Spratlys are rocks, which are entitled to only a 12 nautical mile territorial sea, or islands, which carry a 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

Because China will still be able to maintain its claim to the Spratlys even if it loses the case, the decision on what maritime entitlements individual features have will matter a great deal. If even one of the Spratlys is found to be an island entitled to a 200 mile EEZ, China will be able to plausibly claim that it owns that feature and the 200 mile entitlement that comes with it, a claim that, while not as large as the nine-dash line, would still be quite substantial.

This is where Itu Aba comes in. Itu Aba is a feature in the Spratly Islands spanning about 110 acres in area, or about one-fourth the size of the average American farm. But small as it is, Itu Aba is still the largest natural feature in the Spratlys. If any feature in the chain is going to be declared an island entitled to an EEZ, Itu Aba is the leading candidate. Read more…

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