The Paracel Islands and U.S. Interests and Approaches in the South China Sea
ARMY WAR COLLEGE CARLISLE BARRACKS PA STRATEGIC STUDIES INSTITUTE
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The region around the Paracel Islands and the South China Sea is important to the economies of the surrounding states in terms of the fish resources and potential for energy reserves, which result in diplomatic and physical clashes. The large flow of maritime commerce around the Paracel Islands is also crucial to the economic well-being of the region and the world, and occupation of the islands dictates control of the surrounding sea s maritime traffic, security, and economic exploitation. Although China currently occupies all of the Paracels, they are also vigorously claimed by Vietnam. The use of customary law and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea UNCLOS in establishing claims to the Paracels and surrounding waters helps explain the perspectives of the disputants. Their legal positions are especially important for American policymakers as they inform possible solutions and suggest how to contribute to peace and prosperity in the region. Three key legal questions must be answered to help sort the disputes sovereignty over the islets, the nature of a claimed land feature, and the delimitation of maritime jurisdiction. Sovereignty is claimed through customary law, with China and Vietnam using historic doctrine to claim the entire South China Sea, while both have also used the doctrine of occupation, which now works to the advantage of China. Once sovereignty and feature type are determined, zones of authority may be established by the occupying state depending on the distance from its established shore baseline. Internal, archipelagic, and historic waters are maritime variations of near-full sovereign control, which could be disruptive to economic and navigation activities if awarded to Vietnam or China, who make such claims. Islands above the high tide mark establish territorial waters and a contiguous zone, which would carve out 24 nautical mile nm zones around the Paracels but should allow innocent passage.
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