The U.S. and other coastal nations could lose millions of square nautical miles of ocean that are now in their exclusive economic zones. The loss would be an indirect result of an arbitration panel’s ruling on China’s dispute with the Philippines in the South China Sea.
Largely overlooked in the tribunal’s July 12 decision was a strict interpretation of which dry land is entitled to a 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone—the surrounding ocean where a nation has sole rights to fish, drill for oil, and search for minerals. While not a legal precedent, the 479-page ruling could influence other judges and arbitrators because of its rigorous argument. “These arbitrators knew that this case was being watched around the world,” says Paul Reichler, a partner in law firm Foley Hoag and lead counsel for the Philippines. “They wanted it to be as close to perfect as possible.”