Greetings from the Australian National University in Canberra, where Dr Christopher Ward is speaking on "South China Sea: The disputes and prospects for international law". His first point was that while the media concentrates on disputes between China and Taiwan, Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia, there are also disputes between all these countries. The disputes are due to possible oil and gas under the South China Sea. Disputes cover the Scarborough Shoal, Sprately Islands, Natuna Islands, Paracel Islands and the Gulf of Thailand.
China's claim to most of the South China Sea is based on the "Nine-dotted line", which was drawn up by the then Kuomintang government of the Republic of China in 1947. Dr Ward pointed out problems with the vagueness of this claim. He explained that determining maritime claims are based on an area around islands, but this requires a determination first as to what is an island and who claims it.
Dr Ward pointed out that Vietnam lost the Battle of the Paracel Islands to China in in 1974, however modern international law does not recognize a change of sovereignty by conquest.
Dr Ward pointed out that the International Court of Justice does not take into account shows of military force, or existing mineral extraction in the area. He suggested that a dispute between all the claimants in the South China Sea would be two complex to resolve by the court. However, he suggests Arbitral tribunals might be used, as allowed under Internationale law. He described the Philippines request fro such a tribunal to be cleverly designed. There is a description of the case in "The Philippines v . China Case and the South China Sea Disputes", by Robert Beckman, Director, Centre for International Law, National University of Singapore, March 13-15, 2013.
Dr Ward suggested the obvious solution was for the countries to put their claims aside and agree to exploit the resources jointly, as with the Timor Sea Treaty between Australia and East Timor.
While international law play some role in such disputes, I suggest that military projection also plays a role. An arms race is taking place in Asia, with nations acquiring maritime weapons systems, including submarines, aircraft carriers, patrol aircraft, anti-ship missiles and ships. Australia has ordered two Canberra class Landing Helicopter Dock (LHD) ships and Hobart class air warfare destroyers. Only lacking are F-35B short takeoff and vertical landing (STOVL) aircraft to form a carrier battle group. Australia is already planning to order the conventional variant of the F-35, and as the recent decision to order the "G" variant of the F/A-18F shows, such decisions can be made quickly. The UK changed its order from the F-35B, to F-35C and then back to F-35B.