International law can be viewed as either a tool or a weapon, depending on how it is wielded. On the one hand, the rules of international law outlining the range of legitimate territorial and maritime claims can provide an invaluable toolbox of objective standards for sorting out a way forward in what can often be a complex problem of international relations. On the other, a misinterpretation or partial understanding of the applicable international law can obfuscate the intentions of the rival claimants and further complicate the overall situation. In some ways, a partial understanding of the applicable law might be more harmful than no knowledge at all.
For the unresolved disputes in the South China Sea, one issue worth considering is the potential significance of the new lighthouses that China has constructed on several geographic features within the Spratly Islands. The recent “China’s Lighthouses in the Spratlys” commentary by Lin Ting-Hui of Taiwan is an example of how a misinterpretation or a partial understanding of the applicable law can obfuscate more than it illuminates. This includes both the international law of the sea, as reflected in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and the customary international law relating to sovereignty claims. Below is an attempt to outline the limited legal significance of those new lighthouses, and a strategic risk arising from their construction.