Decoding the Jargon of the South China Sea Dispute

Terms central to international court ruling expected Tuesday
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Why China's Territorial Disputes Could Mean War

An international Court issues its ruling Tuesday on a challenge brought by the Philippines to China’s claim to more than 80 percent of the South China Sea.

The report by the tribunal in The Hague—which will decide on at least seven of 15 Philippine submissions—is likely to be filled with jargon related to maritime disputes. The ruling is expected after 11a.m. local time in The Hague. To help you prepare, here is a glossary of the key terms and acronyms:


The 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations ranges from small states like Laos to bigger economies like Indonesia. China and Asean have agreed to develop a code of conduct for the South China Sea, but progress has been minimal. Asean operates by consensus, and China has lobbied countries under its influence to block communiques that may criticize its behavior, according to diplomats.


States may claim an "exclusive economic zone" of up to 200 nautical miles (370 kilometers) around their territory, where they have the sole right to exploit resources. They must allow the innocent passage of foreign vessels through these zones, according to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. China and countries including India argue they have the right to regulate foreign military activity within an EEZ.

A Philippine Navy personnel stands in front of an Agusta Westland AW109 helicopter before it takes off during the bilateral maritime exercise between the Philippine Navy and US Navy dubbed as Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT 2014), aboard the Philippine Navy vessel BRP Ramon Alcaraz in the South China Sea near waters claimed by Beijing on June 28, 2014.  The United States and the Philippines kicked off joint naval exercises in the South China Sea near waters claimed by Beijing, amid tense territorial rows between China and its neighbours. AFP PHOTO/NOEL CELIS/POOL        (Photo credit should read NOEL CELIS/AFP/Getty Images)

A Philippine Navy officer stands in front of a helicopter during a bilateral maritime exercise between the Philippine Navy and U.S. Navy.

Photographer: Noel Celis/AFP via Getty Images


The U.S. conducts so-called freedom of navigation operations to demonstrate its right to fly and sail through what it considers international waters and airspace. It has performed three transits by warships within the 12-nautical mile territorial sea area near China’s claimed features since October, plus a number of flyovers.


Innocent passage

UNCLOS provides for the passage of foreign vessels—military or commercial—through an EEZ or 12-nautical mile territorial sea. If a ship engages in activity that threatens the security of the coastal state, the passage is no longer considered innocent. All three of the U.S. FONOPS have been innocent passages. Some U.S. defense analysts argue that by not engaging in other activities, the U.S. warships gave credibility to the zones around the reefs China claims.


A naturally formed land mass that’s above water at high tide and can sustain human habitation. An island generates a territorial sea and an EEZ.

CORRECTION - Armed Taiwan coast guard members stand guard around a C-130 transport plane at the airstrip on Taiping island in the Spratlys chain in the South China Sea on March 23, 2016.Taiwan on March 23 gave its first ever international press tour of a disputed island in the South China Sea to boost its claim, less than two months after a visit by its leader sparked protests from rival claimants. / AFP / SAM YEH / The erroneous mention[s] appearing in the metadata of this photo by SAM YEH has been modified in AFP systems in the following manner: [coast guard members] instead of [soldiers]. Please immediately remove the erroneous mention[s] from all your online services and delete it from your servers. If you have been authorized by AFP to distribute it to third parties, please ensure that the same actions are carried out by them. Failure to promptly comply with these instructions will entail liability on your part for any continued or post notification usage. Therefore we thank you very much for all your attention and prompt action. We are sorry for the inconvenience this notification may cause and remain at your disposal for any further information you may require.        (Photo credit should read SAM YEH/AFP/Getty Images)

Members of the Taiwan coast guard stand guard around a C-130 transport plane on Itu Aba island in the Spratlys chain.

Photographer: Sam Yeh/AFP via Getty Images

Itu Aba

The largest natural feature in the Spratlys and occupied by Taiwan. Taipei is worried the tribunal might rule on whether Itu Aba—also known as Taiping—is an island, even though it’s not named in the Philippine submissions. Taiwan and China’s claim to the South China Sea are based on the same map published before the Nationalist government fled to Taipei and the Communists won China’s civil war.

Low-tide elevation

A feature exposed at low tide but submerged at high tide. It doesn’t generate a territorial sea.

Nine-dash line

China’s claim is based a dashed line drawn on a 1940s map, although more recent maps include 10 dashes. The line is shaped like a cow’s tongue and loops to a point about 1,800 kilometers south of the coast of China’s southern Hainan Island. Beijing has never clarified whether it claims all the sea or just the land features within it.  The dashed line was first drawn by officials of the Republic of China before they were defeated by the Communists and fled to Taiwan in 1949. 

Philippine President Benigno Aquino points to a copy of China's nine-dash line map during an interview with AFP at Malacanang Palace in Manila on April 14, 2015. China's efforts to stake its claim to most of the South China Sea should spark fear around the world, Aquino told AFP on April 14.    AFP PHOTO/TED ALJIBE        (Photo credit should read TED ALJIBE/AFP/Getty Images)

Former Philippine president Benigno Aquino discusses China's territorial claims.

Photographer: Ted Aljibe/AFP via Getty Images


Countries allowed to send representatives to the tribunal’s closed-door hearings on the case, including Australia, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam. A U.S. application to attend was rejected as it hasn’t signed UNCLOS.


The Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague has been appointed arbitrator in the case under the provisions of UNCLOS. Its ruling is final and can’t be appealed, but there’s no mechanism to enforce it.


A feature that’s above water at high tide but can’t sustain human habitation or economic life. Rocks generate 12-nautical mile territorial seas, but not EEZs.

Spratly Islands

More than 100 small islands and reefs set in rich fishing grounds and potentially sitting on oil-and-gas deposits. The chain, known as the Nanshan Islands to China, is claimed in entirety by China, Taiwan and Vietnam. The Philippines claims part of them, as does Malaysia.

FIERY CROSS REEF, SOUTH CHINA SEA - JUNE 3, 2016:  DigitalGlobe overview imagery of the Fiery Cross Reef located in the South China Sea. Fiery Cross is located in the western part of the Spratly Islands group.  Photo DigitalGlobe via Getty Images.

Satellite imagery of the Fiery Cross Reef, where China has built an airstrip, barracks and other facilities that can have military use.

Photographer: ScapeWare3d/DigitalGlobe via Getty Images
  • China occupies eight features, including Fiery Cross Reef, Mischief Reef, South Johnson Reef and Subi Reef. It’s turned seven into artificial islands. Fiery Cross is equipped with a 3 kilometer airstrip capable of landing military aircraft. Airstrips are being built on Subi and Mischief. 
  • Vietnam occupies 21 features in the Spratlys, nine of them above water at high tide and 12 low-tide elevations.  
  • The Philippines occupies eight features. The largest, Thitu, has a 1 kilometer airstrip. Malaysia occupies seven features and runs a naval base on Swallow Reef. Taiwan occupies Itu Aba and one smaller feature. Brunei claims an EEZ that takes in a southern reef, but hasn’t made any formal claim to it.


Scarborough Shoal

China seized the shoal from the Philippines in 2012. Its coast guard periodically shoos off Philippine fishing boats nearby. Should China build on the shoal, it could gain a potential military outpost right on the Philippines’ door.

In this Sept.23, 2015 photo provided by Renato Etac, Chinese Coast Guard members approach Filipino fishermen as they confront them off Scarborough Shoal at South China Sea, also called the West Philippine Sea, in northwestern Philippines. More than once, Chinese coast guardsmen approached Etac's boat and pointed their rifles at him, but he says he knew they would not fire and risk starting a war.(Renato Etac via AP)
A Chinese Coast Guard vessel confronts a Philippine fishing boat off Scarborough Shoal in September 2015.
Photographer: Renato Etac/AP Photo

Territorial sea

The 12-nautical mile territorial belt measured from the baseline of a coastal state. The baseline refers to the low water mark of the coast.


The treaty that has since 1994 defined the rights and responsibilities of nations with respect to the world’s oceans. In particular, it defines the territorial zones generated by maritime features. China and the Philippines have signed and ratified it. The U.S. says it follows its provisions.

Sources: IISS, Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, UNCLOS, PCA, CIA 


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