Naming Disputed Maritime Features in the South China Sea – “What’s in a Name?”

China and Vietnam have a long history of incidents, because of them acting in relation to disputed parts of the South China Sea. A new chapter to this history was added at the beginning of May 2020, when Vietnam learned that China provided 80 maritime features, belonging to the disputed Spratly and Paracel islands in the South China Sea, with Chinese names. Three decades earlier, in 1983, China embarked on a similar naming exercise of features in the South China Sea.

Looking at the history of incidents between China and Vietnam, it was not the first time an act of naming by one of the States created conflict between the two States. An incident also occurred after Vietnam proclaimed that the ‘South China Sea’ was henceforth to be named as the ‘West Philippine Sea’ in 2012, to which China protested heavily.

But what is the legal value of naming maritime features in the Spratly and Paracel islands by China, from an international law perspective?

Faced with the recent naming, Vietnam protested. Reportedly, it even contemplated to take the issue to international adjudication in order to be settled. Vietnam’s act of protesting is significant from the view of international law, however. This is because, by undertaking a unilateral act, a State, in this case China, may have sought to assert a right, or might have sought to create a new right. A lack of a response to a unilateral act might be construed as that a State has acquiesced in the other State’s claim. In a nutshell, acquiescence is inferred from silence or inaction in a situation that a State should have responded. Protesting against the other State’s unilateral conduct may therefore sometimes be necessary for a State to protect its claims. However, the need for producing a response is intertwined with the circumstances at hand, and not all acts actually demand a response.

International law does not address the issue of naming explicitly (see more generally on this issue E. Franckx, M. Benatar (et al.), ‘The Naming of Maritime Features Viewed from an International Law Perspective’, China Oceans Law Review (2010), pp. 1-40), raising the question of how to deal with this issue. A possible answer may lie in the fact that a State has sovereignty over its territory. The latter encompasses a State’s mainland territory, internal waters, territorial sea, archipelagic waters and high-tide features, as well as the air space above them. An implication of the sovereignty that a State has over its territory, coming down to that it enjoys full powers, would be that this also extends to the naming of maritime features that are located within its territory. By that same token, the name attributed by a State to a part of its territory would be opposable to other States. Of key importance in this regard is that this opposability would extend only to parts of what can be considered a State’s territory. But all this is premised, however, on that there is one State that has a clear title over a territory. This is problematic when applied to disputed parts of the South China Sea, to which multiple States lay claim.

The precise motive underlying the naming exercise by China is difficult to pinpoint, and various motivations have been suggested for what led China to embark thereon. One article has argued that the naming was a reaction to Vietnam being particularly active in relation to the South China Sea, considering Vietnam to have taken advantage of China’s attention having been on dealing with the COVID-19 outbreak. Allusions were also made that, through this act, China sought to reassert its ‘sovereignty over the South China Sea’. This seems to imply that at least part of the reason lying behind the naming of the maritime features in the disputed Spratly and Paracel islands, is that China perceives it as way to strengthen its sovereignty claim over them. A difficulty is, however, that some of these maritime features are submerged. The consequence of this is that they are thus not territory. At the same time, only territory has entitlements to maritime zones under the Law of the Sea.

Maritime features that are below water at high tide are called low-tide elevations (Article 13 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (LOSC)). A further consequence from that low-tide elevations are not territory, besides that they lack the ability to generate maritime zones of their own, is that there cannot be a sovereignty dispute between States over a low-tide elevation. This does not mean that they are not without relevance, however: if a low-tide elevation is located within 12 nautical miles (nm) from the baselines of a territory, it belongs to the State that has sovereignty over this nearby territory. Also, a low-tide elevation can be located within a disputed maritime area: that is, if the low-tide elevation is located within 12 nm from a disputed territory – for example, a disputed island.

A few of the recently named maritime features are high-tide features. When high-tide features are permanently above water and naturally formed, they are considered to be territory. This means that high-tide features may also be subjected to competing sovereignty claims by States. Under the LOSC, islands are divided into two categories: rocks under Article 121(3), and fully-entitled islands, as defined by Article 121(2). The main difference lies in the entitlements that they respectively have to maritime zones. Whereas rocks are only entitled to a territorial sea, not going beyond the maximum limit of 12 nm, and a contiguous zone of an additional 12 nm, fully-entitled islands are entitled to a territorial sea, a contiguous zone, an exclusive economic zone, and a continental shelf; and, if the requirements under Article 76 of the LOSC are met, also an extended continental shelf.

But what legal weight does the act of naming by a State carry in establishing ownership of a high-tide feature, or to indicate evidence of ownership? Put differently, does the act of naming lead to a State’s sovereignty claim being strengthened as a result?

Under international law, States that lay claim to the same land territory, which includes high-tide features, may seek to fortify their sovereignty claim through peaceful means. However, a State’s claim will not be further fortified once the critical date has passed. Although it may be difficult to pin down its exact moment in time, the critical date refers to the date when the sovereignty dispute between the States concerned has crystallised.

As to the question which State has sovereignty over a land territory, in the absence of a relevant treaty, the main issue is which State has a stronger title. International courts and tribunals, if they were to deal with a dispute of this type, will usually first identify the acts of peaceful administration that have been taken by States claiming the same piece of territory, to then weigh and compare these acts, to decide which of the States concerned has a stronger title over the land territory.

International case law in which the aspect of the naming of maritime features played a more substantial role is limited. However, the case of Minquiers and Ecrehos, which was dealt with by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in 1953, does shine some light on the relevance of naming. In this case, the fact that the United Kingdom (UK) did not name some of the islands that were in dispute, was used by France to argue that they were not within the control of the UK (Counter Memorial of France, pp. 382-383). Particularly relevant in this regard is that the ICJ noted that it “cannot draw any conclusion from the naming of the islands since this question must ultimately depend upon evidence which relates directly to the possession of these groups” (Minquiers and Ecrehos, p. 55). Here, the aspect of naming did not play a significant role for the ICJ in determining which of the States concerned had a stronger title over the islands, because it did not evidence possession of the islands.

In light of the above, it is essential to make a distinction between low-tide elevations and high-tide features, as a sovereignty dispute can only arise concerning the latter. Then, a State may seek fortify its sovereignty claim peacefully. Whether a claim will be strengthened is entwined with whether the critical date has passed, however. But in the context of establishing sovereignty over what can be considered high-tide features, their naming may be an act that actually carries little weight for an international court or tribunal, if it would be asked to deal with the matter.

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