Malaysia and Brunei: An Analysis of their Claims in the South China Sea
J. Ashley Roach
CNA Occasional Paper
Foreword by CNA Senior Fellow Michael McDevitt
This is the second of three legal analyses commissioned as part of a project entitled, “U.S. Policy Options in the South China Sea.” The objective in asking experienced U.S international lawyers, such as Captain J. Ashley Roac h, Judge Advocate General’s Corps, USN (ret.), 1 the author of this analysis, is to provide U.S. policy makers access to work that tests the legal arguments that Vietnam, China, Malaysia and Brunei and the Philippines make in support of their claims, weigh them against the body of international case law associated with maritime disputes of this sort, and if possible, reach a judgment on which country’s claim is superior.
Importantly, this analysis of Malaysian and Brunei claims in the Spratly archipelago was not undertaken as a prelude to a recommendation that the United Stat es depart from its long held position of not taking a position on competing sovere ignty claims in the South China Sea. That is not the intent of these legal analyses, nor is it one of the recommendations of the project.
Malaysia claims seven islands or rocks in the Spratly group, two of which are occupied by Vietnam, and one by the Philippines. Malaysia occupies the remaining four and has constructed sturdy mini-naval stations with small boat basins on each of these features. Malaysia also claims two low-tide elevations and three totally submerged reefs that are on its continental shelf.
Captain Roach’s findings re garding Malaysia are:
The only features claimed by Malaysia that could generate maritime zones are the islands named Swallow Reef, Amboyna Cay (Vietnam occupied), Barque Canada Reef (Vietnam occupied) and Commodore R eef/Rizal Reef (Philippine occupied), and the rocks forming Erica Reef, Investigator Shoal, and Mariveles Reef. The islands are entitled to a terri torial sea, EEZ, and continental shelf. The rocks are entitled only to a 12-mile territorial sea.
The other features [claimed by Malaysia] are either low-tide elevations lying more than 12 miles from an island or mainland or submerged at low tide. They have no maritime zone entitlements and are not subject to appropriation. The State from whose continental shelf these feat ure rise has sovereign rights to them.
Assuming that the Spratlys are not treated as a single unit for sovereignty purposes, there is insufficient evidence to state definitely which State (Malaysia or Vietnam) has sovereignty over the islands and rocks in the Spratlys claimed by Malaysia. It would appear that the Philip pines and China have the weakest cases as to these features.
As to the features not subject to appropriation that rise from Malaysia’s continental shelf, Malaysia clearly has sovereign rights over them, i.e., the low-tide elevations Dallas Reef and Ardasier Reef, and the submerged features James Shoal and North Luconia Shoals and South Luconia Shoals.
Malaysia’s involvement the Spratlys was the result of its continental shelf claim of 1979, followed in December of that year by publication of a map that drew protests from Malaysia’s neighbors, including China, Indonesi a, Vietnam and the Philippines. Malaysia’s claim, which is based on the presence of the islands and ro cks in its claimed continental shelf and EEZ jurisdiction, is considered by so me legal analysts very weak.
This would be true if either China or Vietnam’s claims to the entire Spratly archipelago were judged to be superior. However, as Ca ptain Roach points out in his findings, that depends on whether sovereignty over the entire Spratly archipelago ( spread over some 164,000 square miles of ocean) is based on considering the Spratlys as a single territorial unit, or if, because of its sprawl and remo teness, occupation by Malaysia of discrete previous unoccupied features could be legitimat e. This is only one of the many issues an arbitral tribunal would have to sort out; in the remote chance that all of the contesting parties ever agreed to seek arbitration.
Regarding Brunei, there is only one feature in the Spratlys that Brunei claims, Louisa Reef. The basis for this claim is that it is on Brunei’s continental shelf; the same rationale that Malaysia used to for its claims to Spratly features. In fact, Malaysia in the past had also claimed Louisa Reef, but has apparently quietly dropped that claim given that its neighbor’s rationale is identical to its own. Since that featur e is considered part of the Spratly claim that means that both Chin a and Vietnam also claim Louisa Reef.
There is also some uncertainty whether Louisa Reef is an island (more likely a rock), or is a low tide elevation.
Captain Roach concludes:
China’s claim to Louisa Reef is not mentioned in the 2013 American Journal of International Law Agora on the South China Sea. (NB: he does not address Vietnam’s claim to the Spratlys.)
Brunei, on the other hand, maintains its claim to Louisa Reef. Accordingly, to the extent that Louisa Reef is an island and subject to approp riation, Brunei would appear to have the better claim to sove reignty over Louisa Reef. If, on the other hand, Louisa Reef is either a low-tide el evation or a submerged feature, it is not subject to appropriation and is simply part of Brunei’s continental shelf. In any case, China likely has no plausible claim to the waters of Brunei’s EEZ included within the nine-dash line.
In the unlikely event these sovereignty claims are taken to the International Court of Justice, International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea or arbitration for resolu tion, the process will be long and difficult. None of the claimants has what might be called an “open and shut” legal case.
While Malaysia and Brunei are minor players when compared to the claims of China, Taiwan, Vietnam, and the Philippines, they will both have to be taken into account to achieve a permanent resolution to the overlapping sovereignty claims in the Spratlys.
The reality on the ground is that China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines all permanently occupy features in the Spratly group; some have done so for over 50 years. Resolution of the dispute is likely in only four ways:
- All parties agree to undertake judicial decision or arbitration.
- All parties agree to freeze in place, tabling the issue of ultimate sovereignty in favor of a cooperative regime for resource exploitation and management.
- Individual claimants reach an understanding with China, renouncing their sovereignty claims in return for economic preference.
- The most powerful party uses fo rce to expel rival claimants.
Download the analysis at Malaysia & Brunei’ claims [PDF]