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Asia-Pacific

Let Me Be Clear: Taiwan Should Be Defended, Even Though the Defense is Illegal

by Julian Ku

So I managed to anger lots of folks (mostly on twitter) with my post Friday (republished in the Diplomat and RealClearWorld yesterday) on the international legal problems created by any Japanese intervention to defend Taiwan from an attack by China.  I don’t mind angering people (especially on twitter), but I do want to make sure they are angry with me for the right reasons. Many readers seem to think I want China to invade Taiwan, which is in fact the complete opposite of my policy goal.   So let me offer some clarifications of my position on policy, and a few rebuttals of legal responses to my arguments.

1) Policy: I am squarely in favor of U.S. military intervention to defend Taiwan against any PRC military attack. I am even in favor of intervention in the case of a declaration of independence by Taiwan as long as Taiwan acts in a responsible way so as not to threaten China’s national security.(My only hesitation on this is the cost to the US, but not on the merits of Taiwan’s case). Given how strong China is these days, I am pretty sure Taiwan could not be a real military threat to China (nor would it want to be).  Whether the US would actually protect Taiwan is the zillion dollar policy question that I don’t have the answer to.  I hope it does, but I don’t know if it will.

2) Law: However, my favored US policy is in deep tension with, or even direct conflict with, traditional understandings of the international law governing the use of force.  For those of us who love and cherish Taiwan, it is no use pretending as if the law supports a US or Japanese military intervention to defend Taiwan. It doesn’t. It would be better for all concerned if we faced this legal problem head-on rather than try to come up with complicated not-very-persuasive workarounds.  Here are the two most obvious workarounds, raised in this very angry and excited post by Taiwan-expert J. Michael Cole:

a) Responsibility to Protect and Humanitarian Intervention
Here is a simple response: R2P are non-binding principles that, even if they were binding, seems to require Security Council consent.  Humanitarian intervention remains deeply contested and doubtful in international law, and would not apply to Taiwan in any case until it was probably too late. Kosovo is a great example of how contested this doctrine is. Syria is another.

b) The ROC is a separate legal entity.
I get that this is a complicated issue, but I don’t think I am “misreading” historical documents when I write that i) the US recognizes the PRC as the government of China and that the US accepts that Taiwan is part of China; 2) Japan recognizes the PRC as the government of China, and Japan accepts that Taiwan is a part of China.  Sure, neither country recognizes that Taiwan is a part of the PRC, but both the US and Japan have made clear that China is a single legal entity that includes Taiwan, and that the PRC is the sole government in charge of this entity. We can futz around the details, but there is a reason why neither the US nor Japan (nor almost anyone else) have diplomatic relations with Taiwan.

Here is one interesting and unexpected policy consequence of Taiwan’s current legal position: it would be safer from a legal perspective for Taiwan to declare independence, since that would protect it from this legal problem I’ve identified. Of course, that legal position would probably be the least safe from a policy perspective, since it is the mostly likely to spark a Chinese attack.

Which brings me to my real point: the increasing irrelevance of Article 51 of the UN Charter to decisions by major powers on whether to use military force. The decision on whether to defend Taiwan should not depend on workarounds for Article 51. It should depend on the combination of moral values and national interests the US and Japan consider worth protecting here in Taiwan. I think Taiwan is worth protecting, but it is important to recognize that the law is not on Taiwan’s side.

Why “Lawfare” Won’t Deter China in the South China Sea

by Julian Ku

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.

Why Japan Would Violate International Law If It Militarily Intervened to Defend Taiwan (But Why Japan Should Do So Anyway)

by Julian Ku

I’ve been swamped with various projects and distractions here in Taiwan (mostly food-related), so I didn’t notice until today this very interesting Zachary Keck post about how Japan’s recent decision to re-interpret its constitutional provision to allow expanded overseas military activities would enable Japan to help defend Taiwan against an attack from China.  It’s a fascinating post, but it also made me think of an interesting wrinkle that cuts against his argument.  It is almost certainly true that international law prohibits any military action by Japan (or the US) to defend Taiwan from a Chinese attack.

In his post, Keck notes that Japan’s decision to reinterpret its constitution does NOT allow Japan to fully exercise its rights to collective self-defense under international law, but it does allow Japan to provide military support to allies where Japan itself is threatened.  But he then argues that even under this more narrow “collective self-defense” right, Japan could  (and probably would) intervene to assist Taiwan in a military defense against a Chinese invasion.

I think this could be right as a matter of Japanese constitutional law if an invasion of Taiwan could be plausibly construed as a threat to Japan, but there is a strange international law flaw to this argument.  Under black-letter international law, Japan cannot use military force in Taiwan absent China’s consent, even if the Taiwan government requests its assistance.  Why? Because the UN Charter’s Article 51 only authorizes an act of “collective self-defense if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations.” Taiwan is not a member of the United Nations, and to make matters worse from Taiwan’s perspective, Japan recognizes the government in Beijing as the rightful government of China, and Japan further recognizes that Taiwan is part of China. 

So unless Japan is able to plausibly claim that an attack on Taiwan triggers Japan’s own inherent self-defense right (and I think this is a non-starter as a legal argument), and unless a Chinese invasion could be said to justify humanitarian intervention (another very difficult argument), Japan would violate the U.N. Charter if it used military force in a way that violated the territorial integrity of another UN member (China).  Japan could not invoke its collective self-defense rights unless it recognized Taiwan as an independent nation.  And even that would probably not be enough to satisfy international law requirements, since Japan’s unilateral recognition of Taiwan as an independent state would necessarily satisfy international law either.  And good luck, Taiwan, getting U.N. membership.

By the way, this analysis applies equally (or even with greater force) to the United States.  The U.S. quasi-defense guarantee to Taiwan has it completely backwards (from a legal point of view):

  • If Taiwan declares independence, the U.S. has signaled it would not consider itself bound to defend Taiwan against a Chinese invasion. Yet that would be (at least in theory) one state (China) committing aggression against another state (Taiwan), and almost certainly illegal.
  • If Taiwan keeps the status quo and does not declare independence, and China still invades, the U.S. has signaled that it would come to Taiwan’s defense. But that would be one state (China) using force within its own territory to put down secessionists (a la Ukraine) and almost certainly legal.

So the U.S (and maybe Japan) are now committed to defend Taiwan only in a situation that would require the US and Japan to violate the U.N. Charter.  It’s international-law-bizarro world!

Of course, this bizarro-from-a-legal-point-of-view policy suits U.S. purposes, since it is the policy most likely to avoid military conflict with China.  But it also reveals how use of force rules in the U.N. Charter have little relevance to shaping the behavior of the U.S., Japan (and probably China) in any conflict over Taiwan.  Japan and the US should (and probably are) ready to ignore these legal rules when making their determinations about whether to defend Taiwan.  And all in all, that’s a good thing (especially while I am still here in Taipei!).

The Battle of the South China Sea Editorials

by Julian Ku

The conflict between China and Vietnam over a Chinese oil rig has (thankfully) calmed down a little bit, with fewer reports of rammings and water cannon fights in the South China Sea.  But the war of press release and government-sponsored editorials has heated up and all of them are wielding international law as a weapon of authority and legitimacy.

Vietnam’s government has been flooding the Internet with various articles, interviews, and statements accusing China of violating international law by moving an oil rig into waters Vietnam claims as its own.  See here, here, and here.  In general, these are pretty effective, although I do think Vietnamese scholars lose a bit of credibility when they insist that China has “no legal grounds” for its actions. Meanwhile, the Philippines has continued its steady drumbeat of legal articles, including this fascinating essay by Philippines Supreme Court Judge Antonio Carpio.

China has struck back with several English-language articles of its own from Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency.  These have been much less effective or credible, and not just because China has a weaker (although not indefensible) legal position.  Here’s a doozy from the opening paragraph of a recent Xinhua offering:

China’s repeated rejection of Manila’ s plea for arbitration in the dispute in the South China Sea is by no means defiance of the tribunal in The Hague. On the contrary, it shows China’s respect for international law.

I understand what they are trying to say, but this argument just sounds bad.  China has no legal obligation to participate in the UNCLOS arbitration, but its non-participation is hardly a sign of respect for international law when that arbitral tribunal has the power to determine its own jurisdiction.

This Xinhua essay on the Vietnam dispute is much better.  Most importantly, it relies on China’s territorial claim to the Xisha (Paracel) Islands as the basis for China’s right to place the oil rig.  It does not claim any rights here flow from the so-called “Nine Dash Line” that often gets all the press and is undoubtedly the weakest part of their legal argument.  It focuses on the threats to the safety of Chinese sailors and workers, and Vietnam’s legal obligations under the 1988 Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts against the Safety of Maritime Navigation.  

Of course, international law is not China’s strongest suit here. But it is interesting to see how China is using international law to support its actions.  Moreover, all China has to do is muddy the waters by establishing that international law does not plainly compel any particular outcome (as Vietnam and the Philippines seem to argue).  If the international legal arguments are fought to a draw, China is in a good position to win the overall game.

Constructing the Eurasian Economic Union

by Chris Borgen

The New York Times reports that:

The presidents of Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus formally signed an agreement on Thursday to create a limited economic union — an alliance hobbled by the absence of Ukraine but one long pursued by President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia to confirm his country as a global economic force.

“Today we are creating a powerful, attractive center of economic development, a big regional market that unites more than 170 million people,” Mr. Putin said during the ceremonies. He underscored the significant energy resources, work force and cultural heritage of the combined nations.

This treaty, which was signed this past week but is not expected to come into force until January 2015, marks the next step in transforming the still-nascent Eurasian Customs Union (ECU) into the Eurasian Union (EEU). Russian pressure for Ukraine to turn away from association with the European Union and towards Moscow-led Eurasian integration was one of the roots of the current crisis.

As the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) with China and the Central Asian states is Russia’s answer to U.S. military alliances, Eurasian economic integration is meant to be Russia’s response to EU and U.S. economic power.  According to a chronology in a report by the Centre for European Policy Studies, the creation of the EEU was first suggested by the President of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, in 1994. There was not much movement until the negotiation and signing of a customs union treaty among Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan in 2007. The basic requirements of the Eurasian Customs Union came into force in 2010, which were essentially trade policy coordination measures establishing a common external tariff among its members. However, the deepening Eurasian economic integration was given a boost by an op-ed by Russian President Vladimir Putin in October 2011.

In early 2012, the member states deepened ECU’s institutions by starting the operations of the Eurasian Economic Commission, a supranational entity that was contemplated in the 2007 treaty,  to manage the external trade regulations of the member states, including relations with the WTO. That also marked the establishment of  the “single economic space” (SES) among the member countries which, in the words of the Centre for European Policy Studies paper, “envision[ed] further regulatory convergence and harmonisation of national laws” in particular economic sectors.

The treaty that was signed on May 29th is ostensibly to move from customs union towards a full economic union, with free movement of goods, capital, and people among the member states, but reality has so far proven to be less sweeping and heroic than the rhetoric that marked the occasion. The most obvious issue is that the EEU was originally envisioned to include not only Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan, but also Kyrgyzstan, Armenia, and especially Ukraine. Ukraine would have added  a populous country with  economic potential and an an economy that (unlike Russia and Kazakhstan) was not based on natural resource exploitation. But Russia’s intervention in Ukraine  backfired: not only did it fail to bring Ukraine into the EEU fold but, according to a Radio Free Europe report, it has weakened the EEU by having: (more…)

Game On, Again? Vietnam Planning to File Legal Action Against China Over South China Sea Dispute

by Julian Ku

There have been lots of reports out in the last 24 hours saying that the Government of Vietnam is planning to take legal action against China for its movement of an oil rig into disputed waters in the South China Sea.  Indeed, the Philippines Government has stated that Vietnam has consulted it about its ongoing arbitration case against China and the two nations issued a joint statement of solidarity opposing China’s actions in the South China Sea.

What would the Vietnam legal action look like? The most likely action would be to seek arbitration under Annex VII of UNCLOS, just as the Philippines has done.  Of course, China would have the same defense and likely the same reaction to any Vietnam claim: that China’s Article 298 declaration excluding disputes over matters involving “sea boundary delimitations”or “involving historic bays or titles….” would exclude jurisdiction.  Moreover, China might further argue that Article 298 also allows it exclude “disputes concerning military activities, including military activities by government vessels and aircraft engaged in non-commercial service, and disputes concerning law enforcement activities in regard to the exercise of sovereign rights or jurisdiction….”

At first glance, I can’t see how Vietnam’s claim would be any better or worse than that of the Philippines with respect to jurisdiction.  Vietnam has the same objection to China’s Nine Dash Line, and Vietnam similarly argues certain South China Sea features claimed by China are not “islands” for purposes of UNCLOS entitled to an Exclusive Economic Zone.  So I think we will see a rerun of the Philippines arbitration.  Vietnam will constitute a tribunal, China will not participate, and away it goes.

Some other reports out of Vietnam suggest it will file a claim with the International Court of Justice, if only to show their good faith, even though the ICJ has no jurisdiction over China.  I don’t think this is a great strategy, but maybe it will be a useful diplomatic showcase.

Finally, there are reports Vietnam will allow its state-owned oil company to file an action against China’s state-owned oil company in Vietnamese courts.  This actually seems like an interesting idea, since once the Vietnamese company won the judgment, it could in theory try to enforce it against the assets of the Chinese company overseas.  It is not a slam-dunk, but it certainly could be a plausible claim.

I am doubtful that  an additional arbitration will lead to China backing down.  Certainly, the Philippines arbitration has not caused China to moderate its behavior toward the Philippines.   The extra added pressure of  a Vietnam arbitration is not huge, and my guess is that China will continue to simply ignore the arbitrations, reputational costs be damned.  I am not saying that it is bad strategy for Vietnam to try the arbitration route, but Vietnam should be realistic about the veryreal costs, and limited benefits of this strategy.

Why Taiwanese Investors Should Think About Becoming Chinese (At Least When Suing Vietnam)

by Julian Ku

I’ve been settling into my digs this summer at the National Taiwan University College of Law as a visiting research fellow with the support from a grant from the Taiwan Fellowship. Mostly, I’ve been spending my time eating my way through what I believe is the best Chinese food scene in the world  (I am posting pictures of my eating exploits on my facebook page for those interested in Chinese food).

But in between absurdly delicious meals, I have also been following the anti-Chinese riots in Vietnam that have caused over 500 different businesses to be shut down there over the past week and thousands of Chinese and Taiwanese nationals to flee Vietnam. Those violent riots were apparently in response to China’s placement of an oil rig in disputed South China Sea waters.

The lively Taiwanese media has been following these riots with much more intensity than their Chinese counterparts, because a large proportion of the burned or trashed businesses are actually owned by Taiwanese nationals, with Chinese workers or managers administering it for them.  TV news here is filled with pictures of Taiwanese flying home with harrowing stories of dodging rioters by hiding in trash cans, etc.  Their plight has caused some soul-searching here in Taiwan because Taiwan’s status as a non-country that is recognized in Vietnam only as a province of China means they receive the blowback for China’s actions and Taiwan’s government has limited means to respond and protect their own nationals.  (Their foreign ministry did helpfully issue stickers to their nationals saying, in Vietnamese, “I am from Taiwan”. Reminds me of the time I was told to put little Canadian flags on my backpack when I wandered through sketchy areas of Egypt).

In addition to advising their nationals to emphasize their “Taiwaneseness”, the Taiwan government’s main action has been to invoke the 1993 Taiwan-Vietnam Investment Promotion and Protection Agreement (in Chinese).   The Taiwan government is using this agreement as proof that it can protect and seek compensation for its nationals abroad.

This is sort of like a bilateral investment treaty, but not quite, because of Taiwan’s odd non-country status.  It is technically an agreement between the “Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Vietnam and the Vietnam Economic and Cultural Office in Taipei” which means it is an agreement between two quasi-government agencies, and not the governments as a whole. This means it is unlikely to be governed by international law, although the agreement doesn’t choose any governing law either.  Moreover, the agreement does not provide for referral to an ICSID tribunal for any investor claims against the host government (in this case Vietnam). Rather, it seems to allow for referral to arbitration under the “1988 International Chamber of Commerce” Rules.  Moreover, such referrals seem to require the mutual consent of the parties in Article 8.  This might allow Vietnam to block a referral to arbitration by a Taiwanese investor.  (Oops! This provision refers to disagreements between the two parties to the agreement, not the investor and the host state. Sorry about the misreading. But I think my larger critical take stands). Since the Agreement doesn’t otherwise waive Vietnam’s state immunity, I am not confident about the ability of an investor to enforce any awards from an ICC tribunal without such consent anyway.

In other words, I am skeptical that the Taiwan-Vietnam Agreement is going to be very effective at winning compensation for investors.  Instead, if I was a Taiwanese investor, I would think about invoking the Vietnam-China BIT.  True, that agreement is limited to natural persons and economic entities who have the “nationality of the People’s Republic of China”, but it is not entirely clear this would exclude the PRC’s “Taiwanese compatriots” who are officially treated in China as “nationals” for some purposes.  Even if this argument doesn’t fly, many of the Taiwanese companies in Vietnam may have Chinese national employees or entities that could make a claim on their behalf.  Of course, this would be pretty bad PR here in Taiwan, where no one really wants to be associated with the Chinese government.  But if they managed to get an ICSID tribunal constituted, a Taiwanese investor has a much better chance to forcing Vietnam to pay out compensation under the Vietnam-China BIT than the Vietnam-Taiwan agreement.  Another example of why being a non-state is such a pain for Taiwan and the Taiwanese.

So How is China Reacting to the Philippines Arbitration Submission? Not Very Well

by Julian Ku

China has not been quiet in reacting to the Philippines filing Sunday of its memorial in the UNCLOS South China Sea arbitration.  In addition to the foreign ministry’s remarks, the People’s Daily has released a full-scale defense of China’s legal and policy position (recently translated here). It is the longest official (well, close-to-official) statement of China’s legal position on the arbitration as I’ve seen anywhere. The heart of China’s argument is that this whole Philippines dispute is about sovereignty over the Nansha Islands, parts of which the Philippines is illegally occupying.  Because this is about sovereignty, and because China excluded maritime and territorial disputes from UNCLOS arbitral jurisdiction in its 2006 declaration, it is the Philippines (and not China) that is violating international law by filing the arbitration claim. Here are a couple of legal arguments or claims in the commentary that jumped out at me. (Read more after the jump)

Whale Wars Day of Judgment: ICJ Rules Against Japan

by Julian Ku

Here is the ICJ’s decision in “Whaling in the Antarctic” (Australia v. Japan, New Zealand intervening).  Here is the Registry’s summary. The vote was unanimous on jurisdiction, and then 12-4 on the rest in Australia’s favor with judges Owada, Abraham, Bennouna, Yusuf dissenting.  There was one aspect of the decision that went in favor of Japan (13-3) but that aspect of the decision shouldn’t affect the overall outcome significantly.

I won’t pretend to have digested this judgment in any rigorous way. I will note that the judgment calls on Japan to “revoke any extant authorization, permit or licence granted in relation to JARPA II, and refrain from granting any further permits in pursuance of that programme.”  Japan’s implementation (or non-implementation) of this remedy will be worth watching going forward.

Game On! Philippines Files (4000 page) Memorial in China UNCLOS Arbitration

by Julian Ku

Just in time for the odd Sunday filing deadline, the government of the Philippines announced that it had submitted its memorial in its arbitration with China under UNCLOS.

Ignoring a possible backlash from China, the Philippine government transmitted the document, called a “memorial” in international arbitration parlance, on Sunday to the Netherlands-based Permanent Court of Arbitration where a five-member tribunal operating under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea will hear Manila’s complaint.

“Today, the Philippines submitted its memorial to the arbitral tribunal that is hearing the case its brought against the People’s Republic of China under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea,” Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario told a news conference.

“With firm conviction, the ultimate purpose of our memorial is our national interest.”

Manila declined to release a copy of the memorial as it has yet to be reviewed by the court.

But Del Rosario said the Philippine “memorial” consists of “ten volumes with maps,” “nearly 4,000 pages” and will fortify the Philippine case which seeks to declare China’s exaggerated claim illegal. A hard copy will be forwarded to the tribunal on Monday.

I hope and trust that at least volume I of the memorial (containing the 270-pages of actual legal argument and analysis) is released publicly soon.  I do think the additional 3700-plus pages of annexes is overkill in a case where the other side is highly unlikely to bother answering.  Still, it will be an interesting public statement of the Philippines’ best legal arguments.  I have grown increasingly skeptical of this Philippines argument, both from a legal and a strategic standpoint.  But I would like to see their arguments.

Whale Wars: Is This The End?

by Julian Ku

On Monday, the International Court of Justice will announce its long-awaited judgment in Whaling in the Antarctic (Australia v. Japan). The judgment (scheduled for 10 a.m. Hague time) comes almost four years after Australia first filed its application way back in May 2010 (here is one of many prior posts where I complained about the length of time this judgment has taken).

This case will be the first time (I believe) that Japan has participated in an ICJ proceeding as a respondent and facing a binding judgment.  Both Japan and Australia had no shortage of legal talent on their teams in this case.  Australia is claiming that Japan is violating its obligations under the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling by using the cover of “scientific research” to actually conduct commercial whaling.  Japan disagrees, and my impression is that this will end up being more of a factual than legal determination by the ICJ here, but I haven’t been following the legal arguments very closely.

In any event, it will also be interesting to see how and if Japan complies with the ICJ’s ruling if it loses.  I find it hard to imagine that the Japanese government will immediately comply, but it is hard to imagine Japan simply ignoring the judgment either.  Since there is evidence the commercial viability of whaling in Japan is collapsing anyway, perhaps this is the excuse the Japanese government needs to end its whaling programs? In any event, if Japan wants to leave open international adjudication as a mechanism for resolving disputes with Korea or China, it needs to be careful in how it reacts to any adverse ruling here.

Why Won’t the United States Call China Killings a Terrorist Attack?

by Julian Ku

While Russia was stealing all the attention over the weekend, a small group of assailants wielding knives killed at least 33 people and injured over a hundred in the main railway station of Kunming, China.  China’s government has called these “terrorist attacks,” and has hinted it is linked with Uighur separatists in China’s northwestern Xinjiang province.  But the failure of the U.S. State Department to use the term “terrorist” has drawn outrage in Chinese social media.

I understand the U.S. government’s reluctance to endorse the Chinese government’s description of these attacks, but I still think the term “terrorist” is perfectly appropriate for this situation.  The attackers indiscriminately killed and injured civilians in a train station, and there seems plenty of evidence that it is motivated by politics and ideology.  To be sure, the international definition of terrorism remains contested, but the US law definition seems applicable.

the term “international terrorism” means activities that—

(A) involve violent acts or acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State, or that would be a criminal violation if committed within the jurisdiction of the United States or of any State;(B) appear to be intended—

(i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population;
(ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or
(iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping;
Look, I get that this definition is quite broad, and is controversial in many countries. And I get that the Uighurs have real grievances. But the US government is already on the record in favor of the broad definition. So why hold back from using the term for an act the US already calls unjustifiable?