The UNCLOS Arbitral Tribunal formed to consider the dispute between the Philippines and China gave China until January 1 to file a response to the arguments made by the Philippines at its most recent merits hearing. China had not showed up at any of the hearings, nor has it submitted any official written arguments to the Tribunal. I don’t know if China will file any submissions (don’t hold your breath), but its state-run flagship The People’s Daily has launched an op-ed fusillade this week attacking the Philippines. Perhaps, this is China’s response to the arguments made at the arbitral hearing.
The first editorial, “Grandstanding Cannot Cover Up Illegal Moves”, is focused on vilifying the Philippines’ for bringing this arbitration, and the remarks of its foreign minister Albert F. del Rosario. The criticism is mostly non-legal, accusing Mr. del Rosario of bad faith, speaking untruths, and being an all-around bad guy. But the oped does contain the germ of a legal argument justifying China’s defiance of the UNCLOS tribunal:
State sovereignty is a core principle in contemporary international law. No force is above a sovereign state. No country, organization or individual could expect China to stand by and allow its interests to be harmed. Here is a piece of advice for people like Mr. del Rosario: Don’t misread the situation. The Chinese government and people are adamant about safeguarding China’s rights and interests in the South China Sea. All calculating moves against that would end up in failure.
The second editorial, China’s Sovereignty over the South China Sea Islands Brooks No Denial, offers more of a legal and factual argument. Interestingly, the editorial relies heavily on the legal force of the 1943 Cairo Declaration and the 1945 Potsdam Declaration as the basis for China’s South China Sea claims over the disputed Spratly/Nansha Islands. The theory here is that the Spratly/Nansha islands belonged to China, and that Japan forcibly occupied them during WWII. Cairo and Potsdam required Japan to return all “stolen” territories, ergo, the South China Sea islands go back to China.
The Philippines (apparently) argued at the merits hearing that the Nansha Islands were “terra nullius” and were not included in the “stolen” territories that Japan had to return to China. Moreover, the Philippines argued that the Cairo and Potsdam Declarations were not legally binding.
China responds with a factual claim (China has always had sovereignty over the islands) as well as legal claim (the Cairo and Potsdam Declarations are legally binding). This latter argument is not precisely accurate, although it is true that Japan promised to comply with Potsdam in its surrender. But none of this changes the fact that neither Cairo nor Potsdam say anything about the Spratlys/Nansha specifically, and seem a weak legal basis for China’s claims to those islands.
In any event, the editorial is largely rhetorical rather than legal. It concludes by rallying the Chinese people against mysterious international forces threatening their sovereignty:
[T]he determination of the Chinese people to safeguard its territorial integrity is as firm as a rock. Only the Chinese people have the final say when it comes to China’s territory. Any attempt to negate China’s sovereignty, rights and interests through a so-called “arbitration award” will be nothing but wishful thinking, just like flowers in a mirror and reflection of the moon in water. By going back on its own words and confusing the concepts for the purpose of territorial expansion, the Philippines will only end up bringing disgrace on itself.
Gotta love the metaphors, although I doubt very much the Arbitral Tribunal will be in any way moved by them.