Chinese leadership on the law of the sea: Then and now


China has frequently called on states to follow and apply the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in good faith. Not so long ago, in 2009, China repeated the call when objecting to Japan’s claim of an extended continental shelf based on Oki-no-Tori, a tiny feature in the Philippine Sea.

China argues that such small features can only be classified as rocks under the UNCLOS definition, and do not entitle a nation to extended maritime zones. China has been persistent in maintaining this position; it went on stating that “[R]ecognition of such a claim will set a precedent, which may lead to encroachment upon the high seas and the area on a larger scale.” This is the original view of China regarding countries claiming excessive entitlements from maritime features.

During the negotiations of UNCLOS, China played a leading role in protecting developing countries’ interests. For example in 1974 when discussing the concept of exclusive economic zones, China stated that “superpowers had for years wantonly plundered the offshore resources of developing coastal states, thereby seriously damaging their interests.”

Throughout the negotiation process, China consistently objected to any accommodation of historic fishing rights that required coastal states to share the resources of their exclusive economic zones with other states that have historically fished in those waters. In short, China put the interests of the international community before its national interests.