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The Developing Role of International Law and Unilateral Challenges to Maritime Claims

Updated: Oct 16, 2021

By: Kevin Leddy

Chinese military and economic expansion have led to a commensurate decrease in the ability of neighboring countries to object to excessive maritime claims in the South China Sea. The existing framework of international law under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea provides an anchoring point for coastal states’ legal claims to the region, but it does not adequately address the complicated diplomacy challenges created by unilateral military action and unique geographical issues, such as artificial islands. Gradual acquiescence to maritime claims that do not comply with international law results from these conditions. Once these boundaries are lost, they cannot easily be regained. This Note analyzes coastal states’ legal arguments in the South China Sea dispute and concludes that international law in its current form cannot effectively regulate excessive maritime claims. It argues that unilateral objection to excessive maritime claims in the form of freedom of navigation operations can maintain the status quo and provide a temporary solution until the dispute resolution process under international law is improved. Finally, this Note offers predictions as to how permanent solutions to the problem of international law’s failure may look in the region.


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