Chinese aircraft carrier
Signs of a rising power: Chinese aircraft carrier in the South China Sea

China’s New Maritime “Rules” in Asia Could Lead to Conflict

Military expert Isaac B. Kardon gives “Critical Issues” talk

In a recent talk in the Fairbank Center’s Critical Issues Confronting China series, Isaac B. Kardon, senior fellow for China studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, discussed China’s bid to make new rules of international law, in particular the law of the sea. In Kardon’s view, the law of the sea “has become a critical arena for the great power strategic competition underway between China and the U.S.” Japanese Vice Admiral Tokuhiro Ikeda, Senior Fellow at The Asia Center, joined a discussion with Kardon following his presentation.

Kardon’s new book, China’s Law of the Sea, argues that China’s maritime practices, in addition to straining U.S.-China relations, are primarily challenging its regional neighbors. He points out that Asia’s smaller states, in the face of increasing Chinese power, must contend with a pattern of Chinese behavior that restricts their actions and jeopardizes their recourse to international law.

Isaac Kardon shares research on China’s maritime behavior before a discussion with Japanese Vice Admiral Tokuhiro Ikeda

According to Kardon, “China’s law of the sea” means that the littoral states of East Asia cannot exercise the full extent of their rights under the international law of the sea. China has no settled maritime boundaries with North and South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Taiwan, and so East Asia’s coastal waters are a patchwork of competing jurisdictional claims. Kardon stated that the conflicting claims are “a major flashpoint” for potential international conflict. China’s claims also challenge the navigational and overflight rights and interests of the U.S., Australia, and European partners, providing yet another major arena of friction on, above, and below the waters of East Asia.

While describing the specific claims and principles that Beijing has put into practice in the South China Sea, East China Sea, Yellow Sea, and the Taiwan Strait, Kardon pointed out that China’s preferred rules generally remain ill-defined—for boundaries, for resources, for navigation, and for dispute resolution. Indeed, he added, China sometimes doesn’t follow its own rules. At the same time, many East Asian states oppose China’s maritime claims. As a result, Kardon argued, China’s ability to establish broader regional and global rules will be limited. 

The ultimate cost, Kardon argued, is that China is making maritime rules less effective. Without rejecting the law of the sea treaty, Beijing has effectively narrowed its scope and importance. Instead, China has emphasized the role of customary norms – international law that emerges from practice over time. This approach suits China’s strategic position: customary law is relatively susceptible to change that would accommodate China’s growing maritime power. “China’s struggle to shape the international law of the sea to its advantage,” Kardon concluded, “will remain a central front of geopolitical competition in the 21st century.”

The Weatherhead Center’s Program on U.S.-Japan Relations and The Asia Center co-sponsored the event.