As I explained in this legal primer, the South China Sea dispute has primarily revolved around two distinct legal quarrels: a dispute over territory and a dispute over the substance and application of maritime law.
Over at The National Interest, I’ve written an article parsing this distinction and what it means for the American approach to the South China Sea. I argue that
[t]hus far, American policymakers have often encouraged the claimants to resolve the conflict on the basis of “international law” writ broadly without specifying which bodies of international law can provide the best grounds for resolving the dispute. This omission has serious costs: by encouraging the disputants to resolve the dispute through recourse to “international law”—including the law of sovereignty—the United States may be unwittingly prolonging the dispute and encouraging aggressive behavior. Likewise, by not stressing the law of the sea enough on its own, Washington may be missing an opportunity to help the smaller claimants band together against China’s recent bout of regional assertiveness.
If you’re interested in the intersection of international law and the South China Sea, please take a look. (And excuse the title—not my choice!)