East China Sea dispute: what is the Role of International Law?

East China Sea dispute: what is the Role of International Law?

The Senkaku / Diaoyu islands, a series of rocky, uninhabited outcrops, are being claimed by Japan, China, and Taiwan, amongst others, both for historical reasons, and because of their potential value in anchoring sovereignty over natural resources like oil.   Some have predicted the dispute may be a military “flash point” in 2013.

As Duncan noted last month, China made a partial submission to the Commission on the Continental Shelf in December, identifying the outer limits of China’s continental shelf.   Reactions of neighboring countries to China’s submission are starting to emerge.   Last week, Korea made a partial submission to the Commission seeking to identify the outer limits of Korea’s continental shelf, which, unsurprisingly, overlap with China’s claim.  The map here is illustrative.

Moreover, in a note dated December 28, 2012, Japan asked the Commission not to consider China’s submission because the distance between the coasts in the area covered by the submission is less than 400 nautical miles, and pursuant to UNCLOS Article 83, the delimitation must be effected by agreement of the parties.  As a result, Japan is maintaining its position that the islands are under Japan’s control and are an inherent part of its territory.

Reactions from other countries with interests in the area (Vietnam, the Philippines and Brunei for example) may be forthcoming.

Despite the overlap between continental shelf claims and sovereignty over the islands however, the  Commission’s direct role in the dispute will be limited.  The Commission makes independent recommendations that are based on technical and scientific data.  It is not competent to consider the merits of division lines between states with overlapping claims, as this article by Coalter Lathrop explains.  As a result, the parties’ submissions to the Commission are without prejudice to their strategy in the larger political contest over sovereignty to the islands.

Looking ahead however, if the sovereignty dispute evolves into a delimitation dispute between the various parties, it could be resolved in one of three ways: military action, political negotiations or international dispute resolution.  To date, most seem to assume that international dispute resolution (and, I might add, international law) will not have much of a role to play.  Although parties to the UN Law of the Sea Convention (and most of the relevant contenders in this dispute are parties to UNCLOS) are required to submit their disputes to one of four methods of compulsory dispute resolution pursuant to Article 298, international jurisdiction in this case is complex because of the number of countries potentially involved, the patchwork of treaty commitments and reservations over dispute resolution mechanisms and law of the sea matters, and the “cultural” hesitance of some of the key players to submit the dispute to an international tribunal. (OJ readers, please chime in on these complexities!)

Nonetheless I think the November 19, 2012 decision of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in the case concerning the Territorial and Maritime Dispute (Nicaragua v. Colombia) should give the parties to the S/D dispute confidence in the role of international dispute resolution mechanisms.   In that decision, the ICJ found that Colombia has sovereignty over disputed Caribbean islands in the San Andres Archipelago.  The Court also found Nicaragua has sovereignty over a disputed maritime area of approximately 75,000 square kilometers.   In essence, the Court tried to reach an equitable decision by giving one country sovereignty over the islands and another sovereignty over the marine area. Although the judgment was initially met with anger in Colombia, even leading it to denounce the Bogota pact which gave the ICJ jurisdiction in the first place, a few days later Bolivia suggested that it might submit a brewing dispute with Chile to the ICJ, suggesting that the authority of the Court has not been diminished in the region.

The ICJ has a long and impressive track record on maritime delimitation cases.  It has been seized of 15 such cases around the world, including an ongoing dispute between Peru and Chile.  Moreover, compliance rates with ICJ cases are generally high because the ICJ has limited, consent-based, jurisdiction.  Third party alternatives to the ICJ are arbitral tribunals, and the International Tribunal of the Law of the Sea (ITLOS), which released its first maritime boundary decision in March 2012, in the Myanmar v. Bangladesh case.

All indicators suggest that the need for dispute resolution in maritime matters will increase.  As countries get bigger, so to speak, by defining their maritime entitlements like the extent of their continental shelf, it is not surprising that they will start to bump up against one another.  With 180 unresolved maritime disputes around the globe, dispute resolution is becoming increasingly appealing when bilateral negotiations fail or stall.

Countries in the South East China sea dispute should reconsider their circumspection towards international dispute resolution.  We need an international court with international jurisprudence in particularly the type of situation where regional tensions run high.  It is surely better than the alternative:  protests, military exercises and potentially conflict at sea.

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Ben Davis
Ben Davis

Very interesting and I hope this dispute rsolution method works.

Robert Morgan

The link to Japan’s note of 28.12.2012 leads to an incomplete URL.  This may be remedied by adding the letter f at the end of it.

Kirsten Sellars
Kirsten Sellars

The header should read: East China Sea dispute.


[…] Of the three possible scenarios – military action, political negotiations or international dispute resolution – for resolving the dispute over islands and exclusive economic zones (EEZs) in East Asia Kristen Boon offers, I favor the third. The lack of a decent legal precedent seemed to relegate the world to a spectacle of dumb nationalism in both official government pronouncement and on the internet. There is now a precedent. […]