The Maturing of China’s Ocean Law and Policy


In the discussion of China’s intentions on its ocean frontier, little attention is paid to the evolution of the academic underpinnings of its policy, especially in the field of international law. When I was writing my 1998 book, China’s Ocean Frontier: International Law, Military Force, and National Development, there was really only one place to go ─ the State Oceanic Administration of China. That book pointed out that when China participated in the UN Conference on the Law of the Sea from 1973-1982, which resulted in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, the country’s international law institutions were virtually non-existent. Most law schools had been closed during the Cultural Revolution that began in 1966 and did not reopen until after 1976.

Since the turn of the century, there has been a growth industry in China for the study of maritime law and policy. For example, the Journal of the Ocean University of China was launched in 2002. This was a product of the Ocean University of China, an institution with a long history after 1959, which has been upgraded several times, most recently in 2002.

There are now also several institutes specializing in the South China Sea. The most visible has been the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, set up as such in 2004, at its predecessor, the Hainan Research Institute of South China Sea, which was founded in 1996. This research center, based in Haikou, has produced a range of studies that are never too far from the government’s lines of policy. For example, its published research and occasional statements by its researchers have vacillated on the meaning of the nine-dashed line in the South China Sea, but most have leaned toward giving it some sort of legal effect. This reflects the unresolved ambivalence in the Chinese government to this line left over from history.


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