What exactly is an island?
The question has pre-occupied international law experts since an arbitral panel in The Hague dismissed most of China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea.
In fact, the ruling that Taiping Island is a “rock” defies the conventional definition of an island and could have far-reaching implications for international relations.
The ruling states that a piece of land surrounded by water must fulfill the following conditions to be considered an island:
1. It must not be man-made.
2. It can sustain human habitation.
3. It must be able to support land-based economic activity.
4. It does not require people to live on it, as long as it complies with the previous two conditions.
Some experts say the tribunal’s definition is so strict many existing islands controlled by big powers don’t meet those conditions.
All exclusive economic zones (EEZ)might as well be abolished, they say.
The ruling renders certain islands null and void.
These include Japanese-controlled Okinotorishima island, as well Johnston Atoll, Palmyra Atoll and Kingman Reef in the Pacific, which are controlled by the US.
Several uninhabited islets off the coast of Vladivostok owned by Russia are no longer considered islands under The Hague ruling.
Are the US, Japan and Russia willing to relinquish control of the EEZs off these territories now that these have been downgraded to a rock.
The short answer is “no”.
The tribunal’s ruling is unenforceable.
Great powers such as China, Japan, the US and Russia have every reason to ignore it and stick to their own definition of an island given the high economic and political stakes involved.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Aug. 4
Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting
[Chinese version 中文版]
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