China’s Definition of the “Peaceful Settlement of International Disputes” Leaves Out International Adjudication
China’s U.N. Ambassador made a typically anodyne statement recently to the U.N. General Assembly on the Rule of Law at National and International Levels. But there are a few interesting nuggets worth noting that reflect China’s skeptical attitude toward international adjudication.
Anyone who follows the Chinese government’s diplomatic statements will know that it repeatedly stresses the U.N. Charter’s obligation on states to seek peaceful settlements of international disputes. But the Chinese here and elsewhere define this obligation more narrowly than many international lawyers or other states might define it. From the “Rule of Law” statement:
The Chinese government actively upholds peaceful settlement of disputes, proposes to settle international disputes properly through negotiation, dialogue and consultation, thus maintaining international peace and security.
So far so good. But for many international lawyers, and for many states, the “peaceful settlement of international disputes” would also include other means listed in Article 33(1) of the Charter.
The parties to any dispute, the continuance of which is likely to endanger the maintenance of international peace and security, shall, first of all, seek a solution by negotiation, enquiry, mediation, conciliation, arbitration, judicial settlement, resort to regional agencies or arrangements, or other peaceful means of their own choice.
Now Article 33(1) simply lists options, it does not mandate all states use every one of these processes to resolve disputes. But it is striking how the Chinese government goes out of its way to downplay arbitration and judicial settlement from its public statements on “peaceful settlements of disputes” and in a statement about the importance of the rule of law at the international level. Indeed, this particular statement on the rule of law goes out of its way to denounce the abuse of arbitration and judicial settlement.
The Chinese delegation believes that the decision to resort to arbitrary or judicial institutions to settle international disputes should be based on the principles of international rule of law and premised on equality and free will of states concerned. Any action to willfully refer disputes to arbitrary (sic) or judicial institutions in defiance of the will of the states concerned or provisions of international treaties constitutes a violation of the principles of international rule of law and is thus unacceptable to the Chinese government.
Hmm… I wonder what country has willfully referred a dispute to arbitration in defiance of China’s will recently?
I am not criticizing China’s legal position here, which seems eminently defensible and reasonable. I do think that its approach, which privileges a state’s will and “sovereign equality” as a principle of international law, will naturally lead it to de-emphasize arbitration and judicial settlement. And since China’s opposition to the Philippines’ arbitration is based on a theory of state non-consent and lack of jurisdiction, I think it is unlikely to climb down from this position and accept the legitimacy of the UNCLOS arbitration.
Which is why I find it hard to accept the theory put forth by the Philippines lead U.S. counsel, Paul Reichler, as to why China will ultimately accept the arbitral tribunal award in that dispute. In an interview in the WSJ, Reichler relies on the reputational damage China will suffer if it defies the arbitral tribunal and the advantages China would get out of a “rules-based” system. But China’s view of a “rules-based” system does not necessarily require it to submit to arbitration to set the “rules.” China already has a robust vision of how it can be a “rule of law” nation and avoid arbitration and judicial settlement. Nothing the UNCLOS tribunal does will likely change this view. Indeed, to the extent that other nations share its views, it will also lessen any reputation damage it suffers from a negative award.