International Law Studies


In 2016, an international arbitral tribunal issued a landmark ruling addressing a number of international law issues in the South China Sea. Yet more than four years have passed since that ruling, and the South China Sea situation remains unresolved. The South China Sea arbitration ruling was a positive step in applying a rules-based approach to framing, managing and resolving some of these international disputes. Thus, the international community should reflect upon the value and viability of the arbitral tribunal’s ruling, to include viewing it from the current perspectives of individual States. This article provides a more detailed review and analysis of the perspective of one non-claimant State—the United States—regarding the value and viability of the arbitration ruling. This article will examine the official U.S. perspective, which emerged first during the Obama administration and was thereafter refined during the Trump administration. It includes the U.S. perspective as implied through general tenets of foreign policy and as expressed in direct statements and actions. Ultimately, this article concludes that the United States has continuously invoked the tribunal’s ruling—and particular elements of that ruling—as reflecting international law that could improve the South China Sea situation. It also concludes, however, that the United States faces several self-made credibility challenges in invoking the ruling’s value and viability. The article suggests several ways in which the United States could strengthen its position in promoting the tribunal’s ruling as a positive way ahead for improving the South China Sea situation.