Among China’s unresolved frontier questions, the South China Sea has become the most complex and troubled, and arguably the most significant and disconcerting. The economic and security stakes are high and the stake-holding states numerous and diverse. The claims that China (and others) make about the region reflect such interests but they are, ultimately, legal claims. Beijing’s assertions of rights to the disputed areas have rested on three conceptually distinct grounds. Each presents a different mix of challenge and accommodation to international legal norms and the interests of other states, including China’s neighbors, near-neighbors and the United States.
While China’s behavior (as well as that of other interested states) has been more and less assertive at various times, China’s three basic arguments claiming rights to the region have been comparatively stable. Both China’s pattern of multiple legal arguments and fluctuating actions and rhetoric do little to resolve the debate over whether a rising China will be deeply disruptive of the regional and international order or whether it can—with sufficient skill and tolerable adjustments—be accommodated and integrated. Although China’s stance on rights in the South China Sea may be partly the accidental product of conflicting agendas and shifting assessments, Beijing’s embrace of three distinct lines of legal argument arguably constitutes a strategy that serves China’s interests given the factual, legal and strategic environment that China faces.