Why “Lawfare” Won’t Deter China in the South China Sea
Harry J. Kazianis, the managing editor of The National Interest, has a smart post discussing the risk that the U.S. is taking if it tries to take more aggressive action to counter China in the South China Sea. Essentially, he argues the U.S. has no effective strategy to counter China’s “non-kinetic” strategy to subtly alter the status quo by using non-military assets to expand control and influence in the region. I agreed with Kazianis all the way until he offered his own solution:
There only seems one solution to the various territorial disputes in the region—specifically, what some are calling “lawfare.” All of the various claimants that have disputes with China in the South China Sea should appeal collectively to any and all international bodies that could possibly hear their claims. Only together can they hope to get Beijing to halt its aggressive actions.
He goes on to cite the Philippines claim against China in the UN Law of the Sea arbitration system as a possible model for other nations.
“Lawfare” or international law litigation is not going to be an effective counter to China here for at least two reasons (one legal, one policy-based):
- 1) China has opted out of any “compulsory” system of international dispute resolution that would rule on its territorial claims in the South China Sea (or anywhere, for that matter). This “opt-out” is perfectly legal and may very well prevent the Philippines from even making their full case to the UNCLOS arbitration tribunal. There are no other legal institutions that have jurisdiction. So the only way “lawfare” can work here is if China consents to arbitration. But if Kazianis is right that this is a strategy by China’s neighbors to block its expansion, then why would China ever agree to arbitration?
- 2) Even if compulsory jurisdiction were somehow found in one of these international bodies, there is very little chance that China would feel compelled to comply with any negative ruling. This is not a China-specific problem, but rather a problem almost every country faces when considering arbitration over territorial disputes. The effectiveness of tribunals in these contexts is highly limited since they depend for enforcement on the individual state-parties. This is why voluntary arbitration tends to work better than compulsory arbitration in these kinds of territorial disputes. The U.S. and Canada, for example, have managed to settle (most of) their often contentious land and maritime borders through a combination of non-arbitral commissions, and then special bilateral arbitrations. In the famous “Gulf of Maine” case, the U.S. Senate actually approved a special treaty with Canada to send a maritime dispute to a special chamber of the ICJ. Although clunky, this model is far more likely to succeed in getting state compliance.
So while I agree with Kanianis and other commentators that China needs to be deterred from its current strategy in the South China Sea, I am fairly confident the use of “lawfare” will not be a way to accomplish this goal.