The South China Sea: A challenge to international law

Date & time

6–8pm Wednesday 25 July 2018


Weston Theatre

JG Crawford Building, 132 Lennox Crossing, The Australian National University


Professor Rob McLaughlin, UNSW Canberra
Dr Imogen Saunders, ANU College of Law
Isaac Kfir, Australian Strategic Policy Institute


For interstate visitors, we offer suggestions for accommodation near ANU.


MacCallum Johnson
0421 949 843

Presented by Young Australian in International Affairs

Panel discussion
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There are two types of people in the world: those who believe in international law, and those who don’t. The main contention that arises between these two groups is whether international law works, that is, whether it is enforceable. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea was concluded in 1982 after a series of territorial waters disputes were inadequately resolved by the international law of the time, and came into force in 1994. Ever since, the South China Sea has still been hotly contested between Brunei, Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam, and until recently, unresolved under international law.

When the decision of the Arbitral Tribunal on the matter of the South China Sea was handed down in July 2016, international lawyers were unsurprised to hear that the verdict was in favour of the Philippines and that China’s assertions over the South China Sea were not recognised under international law. China had scant evidence to assert its claim on a majority of the South China Sea, but it was fully prepared to be on the offensive and deny the unfavourable verdict. Despite the verdict, China has continued its activity of island-building in the disputed waters.

The 2017 Australian Foreign Policy White Paper made mention of these developments, showing its concern for the precipitous peace in the South-East Asian area. Many experts assert that global security and stability thrive off an adhered-to international rules-based order - international law. The South China Sea dispute is an example, in our neighbourhood, of the type of dilemma we have seen push the limits of international law to make a meaningful contribution to our rules-based international society. In the almost two years since the decision of the Arbitral Tribunal, China has continued to assert its claims of the nine-dash line, so can we really agree that international law is living up to its purpose?

We are excited to welcome three impressive speakers to the panel to discuss this area of geopolitical relations in the modern era. Please join us for a structured panel discussion, followed by audience Q&A.


  • Robert McLaughlin »

    Professor Robert McLaughlin is the Director of the Australian Centre for the Study of Armed Conflict and Society at UNSW Canberra and a Professor of Military and Security Law. Before his position at UNSW Canberra, Robert taught at the Australian National University in various courses related to the law of armed conflict and international criminal law. Robert has published an extensive list of works on maritime law and the use of force in the High Seas. He has had a long-standing career in the Australian Royal Navy and still serves as a reservist.

  • Imogen Saunders »

    Dr Imogen Saunders is a Senior Lecturer at the Australian National University College of Law. She teaches and researches in public international law and has published a number of works on general principles of law as a source of international law, as well as the status of artificial islands in international law.

  • Isaac Kfir »

    Isaac Kfir is the Director of the National Security Program and Head of Counter-Terrorism Policy Centre at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in Canberra. Before his time at ASPI, Isaac taught and lectured at a number of universities around the world in international relations, international law, security and counter-terrorism studies. He is the author and co-author of many empirical, analytical studies on post-conflict justice, international refugee law and national security law.

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