Home Between a Rock and a Hard Case: Conflicting Claims in the South...

    Between a Rock and a Hard Case: Conflicting Claims in the South China Sea

    The Stimson Center and the Washington Foreign Law Society invite you to a discussion of the battle among South China Sea neighbors – the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei and China – centered on the Philippines’ initiation of a cause against China under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).


    What should determine the right of a country to the natural resources of its 200-nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) – the rule of law under an international maritime treaty signed by 160 countries or historic claims to an internationally strategic waterway that is one of the world’s most important resource areas? What should be the response of the United States, which itself has not ratified UNCLOS?

    The South China Sea is currently roiling from disputes over islands, small rocks and even submerged geographic features that involve rich but fast depleting fisheries and potentially highly valuable oil and gas deposits. The most important, though not the only disputes, have arisen from China’s claims to “indisputable sovereignty” over most of the South China Sea via a “Nine-Dashed Line” on the map that cuts deeply into the EEZs of Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, and the Philippines.

    The disputes have escalated in the past several years to include the seizure or sinking of fishing boats, the cutting of undersea research cables, and most recently, the occupation of Scarborough Shoal, a rich fishing ground wholly within the Philippines’ EEZ by a flotilla of Chinese fishing boats and civilian patrol craft.

    With almost no means to patrol or protect its own maritime areas, the Philippines, a US treaty ally, has exercised its right under the UNCLOS to request an Arbitrary Tribunal to rule on the legitimacy of China’s Nine-Dashed Line and claims to uninhabitable rocks on its EEZ.

    A five-member international tribunal headed by a Japanese judge is now being formed, without Chinese participation. Whatever the outcome, the case is certain to have far-reaching ramifications, not only for the peace and stability of the South China Sea and the management of US relations with China, but also for potential maritime claim disputes as far removed as the Arctic Ocean.


    • John Norton Moore, Walter L. Brown Professor of Law, Director of the Center for National Security Law and Director of Center for Oceans Law and Policy at the University of Virginia School of Law.
    • Retired Navy Capt. J. Ashley Roach, who was the attorney adviser in the Office of the Legal Adviser, U.S. Department of State during 1988-2009 with responsibility for law of the sea matters.
    • Jonathan D. Pollack, director of the John L. Thornton China Center at the Brookings Institution. He was formerly professor of Asian and Pacific Studies at the Naval War College and chairman of the College’s Strategic Research Department.


    • Richard Cronin, director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Stimson Center. His recent op-ed in Investor’s Business Daily examines the South China Sea Dispute.

    Speakers will discuss the legal issues under the Law of the Sea Treaty and past jurisprudence on maritime disputes, along with the implications for U.S.-China-Southeast Asia relations and U.S. policy responses.