South China Sea: A Legal Analysis of China’s Maritime Claims


How China seeks to shape maritime law to legitimize its claims.

A year and a half ago, the contested South China Sea (SCS) was awash in international intrigues and legal maneuverings. On December 7, 2014, two days after the U.S. State Department released Washington’s legal views on Beijing’s disputed nine-dash line (NDL) claim in the SCS, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) released a position paper outlining China’s objections to the jurisdiction of the International Tribunal of the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) at The Hague while reiterating its intent to not participate in the legal proceedings initiated by the Philippines. On December 11, 2014, Vietnam also issued a formal statement to the Tribunal supporting the Philippines’ arbitration case and expressing its own opposition to China’s maritime sovereignty claims in the SCS.

The release of all three legal opinions came before the December 15, 2014 deadline for China to formally respond to the case brought by the Philippines to the PCA in early 2013. The timing of the releases suggested Beijing, Washington, and Hanoi all recognized the strategic imperative to occupy the legal and moral high grounds and influence the Tribunal prior to the jurisdictions ruling last October and merits ruling expected soon.

The strategic pause, while the PCA considers all legal arguments, offers an opportunity to examine the legal implications of China’s maritime sovereignty claims in the SCS – particularly as they relate to the delimitation of maritime zones, assertion of sovereignty over geographic features, and permissibility of military activities in the exclusive economic zones (EEZ). By doing so, one can appreciate more the legal complexity and nuances being considered by the Tribunal and better understand the ramifications of the looming merits ruling to the claimants, greater region, United States, and the world order (international rule of law). Then the geopolitical discourse can be examined by speculating how the PCA might rule in the arbitration case and then identifying potential U.S. strategic opportunities as the result of the ruling.