China's artificial islands in the south China sea: geopolitics versus rule of law

Swaran Singh, Lilian Yamamoto


China’s construction of artificial islands during last few years has raised concerns about militarisation of the South China Sea threatening stability and security for littoral countries. China claims over 80 per cent of the South China Sea and it is building landing and garrison facilities over geographical features classified as rocks and coral reefs. China's claims are grounded on their supposed discovery and occupation of these features since antiquity. Other claimants, like the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan, Brunei and Indonesia, have their own historical narratives and cite articles of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to justify their sovereignty over part of this disputed maritime region. This multilateral nature of dispute makes it extremely complicated and China's increasingly assertive policies have further compounded it. Accordingly, several nations, including United States, have raised alarm regarding freedom of navigation across the South China Sea. It in this backdrop of rising tensions that this article examines these multiple narratives and what UNCLOS and the Permanent Court of Arbitration say in clarifying the legality of maritime rights to crystal gaze likely future trajectories. However, this study also recognizes that while UNCLOS remains at the core of maritime dispute settlement, it is the evolving geopolitics of Asia that will go a long way in guiding both the interpretation of UNCLOS as also state responses in terms of their proposals for joint development or unilateral strategies.


south China sea; artificial islands; United Nations Convention on the Law of the sea; Rule of Law; Spratly Islands.

Texto completo:

PDF (English)


ASEAN, Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, Phnom Penh, the Kingdom of Cambodia, 4 November 2002. Available at: . Acessed: 20 Feb. 2017.

BATEMAN, S.; SCHOFIELD, C., State practice regarding straight baselines in East Asia – legal, technical and political issues in a changing environment. In: INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE ON DIFFICULTIES IN IMPLEMENTING THE PROVISIONS OF UNCLOS, 2008, Monaco, Available at:<> Accessed 19 Feb. 2017.

___________, "Defining EEZ claims from islands: a potential China Sea Change", The International Journal of Marine and Coastal Law, Leiden, v. 29, p. 193-243, 2014.

BLANCHARD, B; PETTY, M. China vows to protect South China Sea sovereignty, Manila upbeat, 14 Jul. 2016, Reuters, available at:<>. Accessed on: 17 Feb. 2017.

BECKMAN, R., Geopolitics, International Law and the South China Sea. In: THE TRILATERAL COMMISSION, 2012, Tokyo. Available at: <> Accessed 18 Feb. 2017.

__________ The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and the Maritime Disputes in the South China Sea, The American Journal of International Law, v. 107, p. 142-163, 2013.

BALLER, R. D. Analyzing the Relationship Between International Law and International Politics in China's and Vietnam's Territorial Dispute Over the Spratly Islands, Texas International Law Journal, Austin, v. 29, p.293-320, 1994.

BENNETT, M., The People’s Republic of China and the Use of International Law in the Spratly Islands Dispute, Stanford Journal of International Law, Stanford, v. 28, p.425-450, 1991.

BUSZYNSKIP, L. Rising Tensions in the South China Sea: Prospects for a Resolution of the Issue, Security Challenges, v. 6, n. 2, p. 85-104, 2010.

CHANG, T. K., China’s claim of sovereignty over Spratly and Paracel Islands: a historical and legal perspective", Case Western Reserve Journal of International Law, Cleveland, v. 23, p.399- 420, 1991

CHINA, "Note Verbale No. CML/8/2011" from the Permanent Mission of the People's Republic of China to the UN Secretary-General 4 abr. 2011. Available at: Accessed 17 Feb. 2017.

_______ Position Paper of the Government of the People's Republic of China on the Matter of Jurisdiction in the South China Sea Arbitration Initiated by the Republic of the Philippines, 12 July 2014. Available at: . Accessed 17 Feb. 2017.

DJALAL, H., South China Sea Islands disputes, The Raffles Bulletin of Zoology, Supplement n.8, p.9-21, 2000.

GAGAIN, M. Climate Change, Sea Level Rise, and Artificial Islands: Saving the Maldives Statehood and Maritime Claims Through the ‘Constitution of the Oceans. Colorado Journal of International and Environmental Law, Boulder, v.23, n. 1, p.77-120, 2012.

GAULT, I.T. Preventive Diplomacy and Pro-activity in the South China Sea, Contemporary Southeast Asia, Singapore, v.20, n.2, p.171-190, 1998.

_______, Compliance with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea in the Asia-Pacific Region, University of British Columbia Law Review, Vancouver, v.33, n.1 p. 227-241, 1999.

GJETNES, M., The Spratlys: are they rocks or islands? Ocean Development and International Law, v. 32, p. 191-204, 2001.

HEYDARIAN, R.J. Duterte and Trump to Reboot Bilateral Relations, 6 Feb. 2017, China US Focus, available at: <>. Accessed on 18 Feb. 2017.

HOOPER, M.R., Why China's island-building is raising eyebrows, CNN News, London, May 21, 2015. Available at: . Accessed on: 20 Feb. 2017.

HOSSAIN, K., The UNCLOS and the US-China Competition over the South China Sea, Journal of East Asia and International Law, Seoul, n.6, p.107-133, 2013.

HUTCHISON, C. S. and VIJAYAN, V.R. What are the Spratly Islands?, Journal of Asian Earth Sciences, n. 39, p.371-385, 2010.

IGNATIUS, D. The tougher US stance in South China Sea could make it a crisis zone, The Washington Post, 22 October 2015. Available at: . Accessed on: 19 Feb. 2017.

JIA, B. B; TALMON, S., The South China Sea Arbitration., Oxford. Hart Publishing, 2014.

JOYNER, C. The Spratly Islands Dispute in the South China Sea: problems, policies, and prospects for diplomatic accommodation. In: SINGH, R. (Org.), Investigating Confidence Building Measures on the Asia Pacific Region, Report No. 28, Washington DC, Henry L. Stimson Centre, 1999, p.53-110.

MEARSHIEMER, J. J., "China’s unpeaceful rise", Current History, Philadelphia, v.105, n.690, p.160-162, 2006.

MORDOUKOUTAS, P. South China Sea: Duterte Is Getting Ready For The Next Flip-Flop, Forbes, 30 Jan.2017, available at: . Accessed on 20 Feb. 2017.

NAGAO, S., Japan, the United States and India as key balancers in Asia, Centre for Strategic International Studies, Washington D.C. March 2015. Available at: Accessed on: 19 Feb. 2017.

NETHERLANDS, Permanent Court of Arbitration. Island of Palmas Case, Hague Court Reports 2d 83 (1932) (Perm. Ct. 4rb.1928)

NETHERLANDS, Permanent Court of Arbitration. The Republic of Philippines v. The People’s Republic of China, The Republic of Philippines instituted arbitral proceedings against the People’ Republic of China under Annex VV to the UNCLOS with respect to the dispute with China over the maritime jurisdiction of the Philippines in the West Philippine Sea on 22 January 2013.

NGUYEN, D. M. Settlement of disputes under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea: The case of the South China Sea dispute, UN-Nippon Foundation Fellowship on the Law of the Sea, New York, 2005. Available at: Accessed on 18 Feb. 2017.

NGUYEN, H. T. Vietnam’s position on the sovereignty over the Paracels and the Spratlys: its maritime claims. Journal of East Asia International Law, Seoul, v.5, n.1, p.165-211, 2012.

OZAWA, H. Japan Could Be 'Main Player' in Asia Conflict: Minister. Defense News, August 2013. Available at: < > Accessed on: 20 Feb. 2017.

PAPADAKIS, N., The international legal regime of artificial islands. Amsterdam, A.W. Sijthoff International Publishing Company, 1979.

NETHERLANDS, Permanent Court of Arbitration. The South China Sea Arbitration (Phil. v. China), PCA Case No. 2013-19, Award (July 12, 2016). Available at: Accessed on: 20 Feb. 2017.

PHILLIPINES, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, "Note verbale no. 13-0211" from the Department of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of the Philippines to the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in Manila, 22 January 2013.

PHILIPPINES, Mission to the United Nations, "Note Verbale No. 000228" from the Permanent Mission of the Republic of the Philippines to the UN Secretary-General, 5 April 2011, at Accessed on: 20 Feb. 2017.

PHILIPPINES, Mission to the United Nations, "Statement by Secretary Albert del Rosario", 69th Session of the United Nations General Assembly, High Level General Debate, 29 September 2014, Available at:

Accessed on: 18 Feb. 2017.

QUINTOS, M. F. Artificial islands in the South China Sea and their impact on the regional (in)security, Center for International Relations and Strategic Studies, Manila, March, 2015, v. 2. Available at: Accessed on: 17 Feb. 2017.

SCHOFIELD, C. H. Island disputes and the "oil factor" in the South China Sea disputes, Current Intelligence, London, v.4, n.4, p.3-7, 2012.

THAYER, C., No, China is not reclaiming land in the South China Sea, The Diplomat, Tokyo, 7 June 2015. Available at: Accessed on: 17 Feb. 2017.

THUY, T.T., Construction in the South China Sea: A comparative view, Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, February 18, 2015. Available at: Accessed on 15 Feb. 2017.

UENO, H. The Problems in the South China Sea. Review of Island Studies, Tokyo, June, 2013. Available at: . Translated from “Minami Shina Kai niokerushomondai,” Tosho Kenkyu Journal, v. 2 n. 1 (October 2012), p. 90–99. Accessed on: 15 Feb.2017.

VIETNAM, "Note Verbale No. 77/HC-2011" from the Permanent Mission of the Socialist Republic of Viet Nam to the UN Secretary-General (May 3, 2011), Available at Accessed on :20 June 2015.

WONG, C. Has Duterte Won a South China Sea Concession From China?1 November, 2016. The Diplomat, available at: <>. Accessed on 17 Feb. 2017.

XUE, G., How much can a rock get? In: MYRON, H. et. al.(Orgs.). The Law of the Sea Convention: US accession and globalisation. Leiden: Martinus Nijhoff, 2012. p.341-370.

______ "Deep danger: intensified competition in the South China Sea and implications for China", Ocean and Coastal Journal, v.17, n.2, p.307-331, 2012.

WHITMAN, E. Amid Chinese Military Aggression, Russia Delivers Submarine To Vietnam For Defense Over South China Sea Dispute. International Business Times, New York June 2015. Available at: <>. Accessed on: 17 Feb.2017.



  • Não há apontamentos.

Direitos autorais 2017 Revista de Direito Econômico e Socioambiental

Licença Creative Commons
Esta obra está licenciada sob uma licença Creative Commons Atribuição - NãoComercial 4.0 Internacional.

eISSN 2179-8214

Licença Creative Commons
Este trabalho está licenciado com uma Licença Creative Commons - Atribuição-NãoComercial 4.0 Internacional.

Rua Imaculada Conceição, 1155, Bloco Vermelho, Prado Velho, Curitiba/PR, Brasil, CEP 80.215-901