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An International Law Perspective on Insular Features (Islands) and Low-tide Elevations in the South China Sea

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image of The International Journal of Marine and Coastal Law

The numerous insular features (islands/rocks) and low-tide elevations (reefs, shoals, etc.) within the South China Sea have long been the centre of attention and dispute involving Brunei, China (the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China (Taiwan)), Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam. This contribution focuses on said maritime features from the perspective of the law of the sea. A general overview is provided of the international legal rules that apply to islands, rocks and low-tide elevations with reference to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, customary international law and international adjudications. The article then examines what the littoral states have said and done respecting the insular features in the South China Sea and offers some reflections in the context of the Philippine-China arbitration.

Affiliations: 1: Faculty of Law, University of Victoria Victoria, BCCanada

* This article was finalized and submitted before the Award on the merits in the South China Sea Arbitration. See South China Sea Arbitration (The Republic of Philippines v. The People’s Republic of China), Award (12 July 2016), PCA Case No. 2013–19, available at

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