04 Jun China Defends Itself on South China Sea: “We are against the arbitrary distortion of the international law.”
There is no shortage of commentary on the growing US-China tensions over China’s land reclamation activities in the South China Sea. I’ve already added my two cents on the legal aspects here, but it’s worth trying to understand China’s defense of its actions. Here is China’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman at a press conference responding to comments from US and Japanese leaders that China should abide by international law.
The international law has been constantly brought up by some countries when it comes to the South China Sea issue. If they did read closely the international law, then please tell us which article in the international law forbids China to carry out justified construction on its own islands and reefs? Which article allows the vessels and aircraft of one country to monitor the islands and reefs of another country at a close distance? Which article gives the green light to one country’s infringement upon another country’s sovereignty and legitimate rights and interests with the excuse of navigation freedom? We are against the arbitrary distortion of the international law. If it is not a practice of double standard, then it must be driven by some hidden motives.
Let me take the two (rhetorical) questions in order:
1) “[W]hich article in the international law forbids China to carry out justified construction on its own islands and reefs?”
China has a point here. There is no explicit prohibition under international law on construction on a country’s own “islands and reefs.” That is why the US calls on China to stop land reclamation don’t have a strong legal basis, especially since it appears most of the other South China Sea claimants have also engaged in some (smaller scale) land reclamation.
On the other hand, it is far from clear China is building out on “islands”. It is likely that it has possession only of “rocks” or maybe even just “reefs.” And it is far from clear that China has title to whatever land features it is using. But land reclamation alone isn’t a violation of any international law that I am aware of.
2) “Which article allows the vessels and aircraft of one country to monitor the islands and reefs of another country at a close distance? Which article gives the green light to one country’s infringement upon another country’s sovereignty and legitimate rights and interests with the excuse of navigation freedom?”
Here, China is on much shakier ground. As I explained at too much length here, UNCLOS is probably best interpreted to allow surveillance and monitoring by foreign military vessels and aircraft up to 12 nautical miles of a country’s territories, and within those 12 nm if the territory is only a rock or a reef. China doesn’t agree with this interpretation, and this is the crux of the dispute with the U.S.
Overall, I think China has a strong legal point on land reclamation, but a weak legal point on surveillance and freedom of navigation. The obvious “compromise” (or maybe the word is “standoff”) here is for the US to tacitly accede to China’s land reclamation, and for China to tacitly accede to US military surveillance up to and perhaps within 12 nautical miles. Since the US can’t actually stop China from continuing its land reclamation, and China can’t stop US surveillance, this “compromise” seems like a safe bet. I will note, however, that China’s actions have unleashed the hawkish wing of the China-watching establishment in the U.S. and, over the long term, this may be the most important outcome of this standoff. The US is taking off the gloves against China and a containment strategy with our new best friends in Vietnam and India is becoming increasingly likely.