Some time ago I finished writing a chapter on sand, deserts and anthropogenic islands for an edited volume on the materiality of territory. One of my case studies were the human-made islands in the South China Sea, so you can imagine that the news today struck a chord. The decision of the court in The Hague to grant the Philippines its territorial rights is unsurprising (see Guardian article for background). Chinese lawyers and anyone familiar with the case had expected as much. Of course, as already pointed out, this has major consequences for domestic Chinese politics. What is more interesting, for me at least, is the geography of the court’s decision.
International law distinguishes between rocks, reefs and islands. This means that these geophysical entities are considered and treated as legal ones. That raises a couple of issues whose importance goes beyond the South China Sea dispute. The definitional one is the most striking because it is uncertain whether there is a quantitative or qualitative difference in these entities. What makes a rock different than a reef? The fact that the geology of the “earth” (a very problematic concept by and of itself) moves, changes, enlarges (etc.) over time poses serious difficulties for law. Climate change is an additional factor to be considered. The second, but equally interesting, issue relates to the attempt to appropriate “natural” phenomena for the purpose of law. A rock is not the same as “land”. The first relates to a materiality while the second relates to a mental abstraction.
The court’s decision seemed to have refuted the Chinese argument that the self-made islands are “territorial”. In other words, these geophysical features are not judged to hold a legal title. I still have to go through the details of the decision but it is clear that this could have important ramifications on how law will deal with the materiality of the world. China has already refuted the decision, arguing that it has “no legal basis.” It is likely that any future developments after this outcome will have to involve a much greater role for social and material geographers.
See also this BBC overview on some of the geo-legal issues at stake: