Best Article on LOS and the South China Sea
I have read many articles on the politics and law of the South China Sea, some short and pithy and others long and complex. I now have read what I think of as the best introduction to the issue of conflict, politics and international law in the South China Sea. It is an article titled “Three Disputes and Tree Objectives: China and the South China Sea.” by Peter Dutton, director of the China Maritime Studies Institute at the US Naval War College. Peter has written knowledgeably and well on maritime issues of southeast Asia before. In this article he provides a structure through which he lays out separate strands of the issues and then examines each on its own. While not a short article, I doubt there is a better one from which to gain an understanding of one of the ocean hot spots in which the Law of the Sea Convention plays a critical role in protecting interests of the US and our allies and in providing the mechanisms for avoiding direct maritime conflict. If you want to engage in informed debate on the maritime issues in the South China Sea (SCS), this is a great starting point.
The three disputes that Dutton addresses are: disputes over territorial sovereignty (the bodies of land in the waters of the SCS), disputes over jurisdiction over waters and the seabed, and disputes over the balance of coastal state and international rights to use the seas for military purposes. Dutton posits that all three of these disputes are being addressed through win-lose approaches that exclude potential mutually beneficial outcomes from the debate.
Dutton takes the time to unpack Chinese claims, as best as can be done with claims that seem to be presented with intentional ambiguity. He provides an illustrative review of the incidents that have occurred in the pursuit of one sided solutions as well as a brief interlude in which cooperation was the order of the day.
In questions of sovereignty, Dutton addresses sovereignty over islands, over what China refers to as “historic” waters), island claims and security claims. In jurisdiction, the main topics are the EEZ and Continental Shelf boundaries, addressing claims by China and by member states of ASEAN. In disputes over control, reflecting coastal state and international rights, Dutton notes Chinese policy of trying to increase national authority over the regional seas at the expense of freedom of navigation and contrary to the Law of theSea Convention.
Moving toward recommendations, Dutton identifies three objectives of states in the region: Regional Integration, Resource Control, and Enhanced Security. From here he moves on to what he describes as “New Thinking about an Old Problem” in which he notes many interests that China shares with the ASEAN states and from which he suggests some win-win approaches to addressing conflict in the South China Sea.
The United States has a strong interest in peaceful resolution of disagreements and the avoidance of armed conflict in the South China Sea in ways that respect our rights under the Law of the Sea Convention. Anyone who needs to discuss the importance of the LOS Convention to the United States should have a basic understanding of the issues in the South China Sea and I can’t think of a better source that Peter Dutton’s article. I highly recommend carving out an hour or two to settle down with the PDF of the article.
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Three Disputes and Three Objectives–China and the South China Sea
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Caitlyn L Antrim
Rule of Law Committee
for the Oceans