Beijing should be denied access to islands it has built in the disputed South China Sea, according to Donald Trump’s nominee for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson. He did not elaborate on how exactly Beijing might be blocked from the artificial islands (RT).


  1. By international laws, is building and owning the artificial islands illegal?
  2. considering the fact that China has veto power in UN, how US can ban china from the islands?
  • 4
    This is a component of a larger problem; the islands that China is reclaiming are in areas of significant dispute over territorial water authority for every major country in the region. Related: politics.stackexchange.com/a/14023/6738 Jan 13, 2017 at 16:47
  • 2
    Not really an answer, but, as a sovereign nation, the United States only abides by international law because it chooses to (international law is effectively a treaty). As President, Donald Trump is responsible for international affairs and can choose to withdraw from any/all US treaties.
    – user2565
    Jan 13, 2017 at 20:28

2 Answers 2


The Security Council Does Not Determine Sovereignty

Sovereignty is the term for one state being able to govern a piece of territory. The United Nations has no process in place for determining who has sovereignty over some territory.

The General Assembly may adopt a resolution supporting a state's ability to govern a territory (which can be vetoed), but it is not entirely binding. Similarly, the International Court of Justice can be asked to make a decision regarding the sovereignty over some territory, but that requires both parties to submit to the ruling.

In this sense, it really doesn't matter that China is on the Security Council. Additionally, it is counter-balanced by the presence of the United States, who could veto any similar claim by China.


So how is sovereignty determined? The most important concept is reciprocity. A state is sovereign over some territory when other states recognize its sovereignty. For example, if other states seek permission from the United States enter the border around the island, or land there, then they are recognizing the United States' sovereignty over that land (and not China's).

Additionally, there are some other things to look for when determining who is sovereign in some territory. These are less important than reciprocity.

  • The ability to create and enforce laws in that area.
  • Recognition of sovereignty from the people living in that territory (for example, by paying taxes, voting in elections, serving on juries, etc.)
  • A treaty wherein two states agree who has sovereignty
  • A history of governing the territory, or a historic claim on that territory

More Information

If you would like a short primer on sovereignty, this document by National Unity Government seems pretty good. I'm not familiar with this organization, but the content matches what I covered in my international law coursework (in an American university in the early 2010's). You could ignore the section on Aboriginal rights.

If you are interested in a very long article about sovereignty, try the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article.

  • "to do business with the people on these islands": the islands in question are uninhabited.
    – phoog
    Jan 13, 2017 at 19:13
  • It's just an example of the kind of activity that signifies sovereignty. I can add a second example, if that helps. Jan 13, 2017 at 19:22
  • I suspect you missed a negation in the second paragraph. I am not aware of any vetos in the General Assembly, but of course I am happy to be corrected. Nov 28, 2020 at 17:57
  • @Joel Harmon AFAIK there is no veto within the General Assembly. Acts of the General Assembly may be vetoed by the Security Council. Nov 29, 2020 at 2:30
  • 1
    I really do feel a bit like a broken record because I had this exact discussion before but that was with a now-deleted user. I urge you to re-read your source because it talks only about the Security Council, not the General Assembly. The No votes that the UK, France and the US cast on the infamous General Assembly resolution 3379 (linked above) would have triple-vetoed it if they had had any power to do so.
    – Jan
    Dec 1, 2020 at 8:22
  1. By international laws, is building and owning the artificial islands illegal?

Altough "international laws" are a fuzzy concept, an international tribual of the International Court of Justice in The Hague did rule that China's claims have no legal basis. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/13/world/asia/south-china-sea-hague-ruling-philippines.html That's as close to a clear answer in "international law" as one can get I suppose.

  1. Considering the fact that China has veto power in UN, how US can ban china from the islands?

China has veto in the UN Security Council, not the entire UN. However even if the Security Council were to rule that China could not build on the islands, China would likely ignore the Security Council ruling just as it is ignoring (other than to condemn) the decision of the International Court of Justice. American cannot "ban" China from the islands through international law.

Other ways to keep China away from the islands would be necessary. Typical tools in this kind of situation are military force and economic sanctions or other economic pressure, However China has a strong enough military at this point that other countries, including America, are unlikely to want to force the issue. Similarly the Chinese economy is large enough that attempts to apply economic pressure are unlikely to succeed.

Unless American leadership is very creative it is unlikely that America will be able to dislodge China from the islands.

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