China Tries to Exploit UNCLOS Loophole With Lighthouses

Background photo by Photo by: Clay Folden, Alligator Reef, http://event.dji.com/photocontest/portfolio/alligator-reef-lighthouse/

In May 2015, China has constructed lighthouses in the Spratlys – specifically, Cuarteron Reef and Johnson South Reef. The 50m-high reinforced concrete lighthouses are designed to radiate light to a distance of 22 nautical miles. The US and Philippines have opposed the construction. On October 10, 2015, China has completed and  inaugurated the construction of the lighthouses.

In a press conference in Beijing regarding the artificial islands in the South China Sea, Hua Chunying, China’s Spokesperson for its Ministry of Foreign Affairs, stated that the construction carried out on relevant islands and reefs is mainly to satisfy civilian needs, provide more public goods and services to the region, and better fulfill China’s international obligationsHua Chunying adds that “China would continue to construct other civilian and public facilities on relevant features in the Spratlys so as to better serve coastal nations in the South China Sea and passing vessels from around the world.”

 

“China would continue to construct other civilian and public facilities on relevant features in the Spratlys so as to better serve coastal nations in the South China Sea and passing vessels from around the world.”

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But are they really altruistic? Are they really “only” for navigational aids? Ting-Hui Lin, Vice President of Taiwan Brain Trust,  thinks otherwise. He cites a provision in the United Nations Convention on Laws of the Sea (UNCLOS) pertaining to the significance of lighthouses in Low Tide Elevations.

The Loophole

In Article 7, Paragraph 4, of the UNCLOS, it states that, “Straight baselines shall not be drawn to and from low-tide elevations, unless lighthouses or similar installations which are permanently above sea level have been built on them or except in instances where the drawing of baselines to and from such elevations has received general international recognition.”

“Straight baselines shall not be drawn to and from low-tide elevations, unless lighthouses or similar installations which are permanently above sea level have been built on them or except in instances where the drawing of baselines to and from such elevations has received general international recognition.

Baselines are starting points for measuring the maritime territory of a coastal state. Thus, on its face, the lighthouses are literal and figurative assertions of China’s sovereignty over the Spratlys.

Has China won the maritime dispute by exploiting a loophole in the UNCLOS? NOT SO FAST!

Ting-Hui Lin also takes note of another provision on the UNCLOS. In Article 47, Paragraph 4, the UNCLOS stipulates that in establishing baselines for archipelagic states,  “Such baselines shall not be drawn to and from low-tide elevations, unless lighthouses or similar installations which are permanently above sea level have been built on them or where a low-tide elevation is situated wholly or partly at a distance not exceeding the breadth of the territorial sea from the nearest island.”

“Such baselines shall not be drawn to and from low-tide elevations, unless lighthouses or similar installations which are permanently above sea level have been built on them or where a low-tide elevation is situated wholly or partly at a distance not exceeding the breadth of the territorial sea from the nearest island.

 

In simpler terms, per UNCLOS, the lighthouses can not be used to establish baselines unless they are within a nation’s territorial waters.

“In simpler terms, per UNCLOS, lighthouses can not be used to establish baselines unless they are within a nation’s territorial waters from the nearest island.”

As repeatedly stated by Justice Antonio T. Carpio in numerous lectures on the “Truths and Lies in the South China Sea,” the nearest island, the Southernmost tip of the People’s Republic of China is Hainan — approximately 470 nautical miles from the Spratlys.

UNCLOS Infographic- www.samgalope.com

Source:


  1. China’s Lighthouses in the Spratlys – http://thediplomat.com/2015/10/chinas-lighthouses-in-the-spratlys/

About the Author

Amang Laya
Amang Laya
Amang Laya is the South China Sea News Today's contributor-at-large. He is a graduate of the University of the Philippines. He spends his days monitoring the latest news and views on the South China Sea Dispute.

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