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When China ratified the United Nations law of the sea treaty in 1996, it was hailed as an important step toward stability and peaceful settlement of disputes in East Asia’s vast, valuable but conflict-riven offshore zone.

So the recent move by the Philippines to turn to the U.N. for a ruling on whether China’s sweeping claims to ownership and control over nearly all of the South China Sea in the maritime heart of Southeast Asia is in line with the 1982 treaty seemed like a perfectly law-abiding step.

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