Report: PRC’s actions undermining rule of law in South China Sea

Report: PRC’s actions undermining rule of law in South China Sea


Aggressive behavior by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in the South China Sea has contributed to a weakening of the international law of the sea, according to a November 2019 report published by the Brookings Institution.

“This hurts all countries, including China, which have an interest in ensuring that competition stays within the parameters of international law, which helps promote stability and minimizes the risk of conflict,” wrote Lynn Kuok, a senior research fellow at the University of Cambridge and Shangri-La Dialogue senior fellow for Asia-Pacific security with the International Institute for Strategic Studies. Kuok authored the Brookings report titled “How China’s Actions in the South China Sea Undermine the Rule of Law.” (

Kuok described attempts by the PRC to pursue territorial and maritime claims and control features, including encroaching on coastal states’ exclusive economic zones, increased military presence and attempts to deny the United States and other countries freedom of navigation through contested waterways. (Pictured: A U.S. Navy F/A-18 fighter jet lands on the U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson following a patrol off the disputed South China Sea.)

The PRC’s “insistence on treating vast swaths of international waters as territorial or internal waters has heightened the risk of incidents in the South China Sea,” Kuok wrote.

For example, when the United Kingdom challenged the PRC’s illegal straight baselines around the Paracel Islands in September 2018, the PRC argued that the British ship “infringed on China’s sovereignty.” Then, in April 2019, when a French warship sailed through the Taiwan Strait, the PRC accused it of  “illegally entering Chinese waters.”

“If all China were doing was issuing verbal warnings, that would be one thing. But its behavior has been more reckless of late with its navy failing to comply with agreed upon rules of behavior with the United States, thereby increasing the risk of incident and conflict,” Kuok wrote.

Despite the PRC’s ongoing attempts to undermine the rule of law, combined efforts by other countries to maintain the rules still prevail.

“China has not yet won in the South China Sea,” Kuok concluded. She recommends that countries continue asserting their maritime rights and freedoms to push back against PRC tactics. She also encourages the U.S. to continue holding bilateral and multilateral drills in the region with allies and partners and communicating to the PRC that building on Scarborough Shoal would have serious repercussions.

“The South China Sea cannot be viewed in isolation, and how Southeast Asian countries position themselves there will depend on the broader strategic and economic landscape,” Kuok wrote.

Competing territorial and maritime claims in the South China Sea include several geographic features: the Pratas Islands, the Paracel Islands, Macclesfield Bank, Scarborough Shoal and the Spratly Islands.

Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam all have overlapping territorial disputes with the PRC regarding the South China Sea. While the U.S. lays no claims to waters in the South China Sea, it continues a strong presence there, even sailing its military ships twice in the disputed waterways in November 2019.

Kuok encourages such actions by the U.S. to continue, and she downplays those giving too much credit to the PRC by saying China is on an unstoppable course.

“This argument is wrong,” Kuok wrote. “It is also dangerous. Taking this stance could well be self-fulfilling. China has gained advantages, but the United States and its allies, through their assertions of maritime rights and freedoms, have thus far successfully pushed back against Beijing’s attempts to assert control over the waters of the South China Sea.”