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Touchy, Touchy. What China’s Sensitivity About the Philippines Arbitration Reveals About the Strength of Its Legal Position

by Julian Ku

While I was on (my completely undeserved) vacation in California recently, I noticed more evidence that China’s government is becoming hyper-sensitive about criticism of its non-participation in the Philippines-China arbitration at the Hague.

First, a top U.S. government official stated at a conference on July 21 that, among other things, “…[W]hen they became parties to the Convention, both the Philippines and China agreed to its compulsory dispute settlement regime. Under this regime, the decision of the arbitral tribunal is legally binding on the parties to the dispute. It’s a treaty. In keeping with the rule of law, both the Philippines and China are obligated to abide by whatever decision may be rendered in the case, whether they like it or not. ”

On July 17, the New York Times published a rather bland staff editorial on the China-Philippines arbitration gently chiding China for failing to participate in that arbitral process.  Noting that China was likely to ignore the arbitration’s outcome, the NYT opined: “[China] should participate in the tribunal process if China wants to be recognized as a leader in a world that values the resolution of disputes within a legal framework.”

Both statements are pretty gentle, in my view, and Russel’s point about China’s obligation to abide by the arbitral tribunal’s rulings on jurisdiction is quite correct as a matter of law.  But it is China’s rather vociferous response that is more striking.

First, the Chinese Foreign Ministry sharply rejected Russel’s remarks.  Most curiously, it charged that the U.S. was, by “[a]ttempting to push forward the arbitration unilaterally initiated by the Philippines, [acting] like an ‘arbitrator outside the tribunal’, designating the direction for the arbitral tribunal established at the request of the Philippines.”  The spokesperson went on to say “This is inconsistent with the position the US side claims to uphold on issues concerning the South China Sea disputes.”

Second, the Chinese Ambassador to the U.S. wrote a letter to the editor of the NYT, calling its editorial “unfair.”  It also concluded that  “we do not believe that the arbitration court has jurisdiction, and as a member of United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, China is entitled to exclude any third-party compulsory settlement.”

I am sympathetic to China’s position that compulsory arbitration is not the way to go here, but as a legal matter, their views are hard to understand.  The UNCLOS does NOT give China the right to exclude any “third-party compulsory settlement.”  It does the opposite, and allows very limited exceptions to compulsory dispute resolution which may or may not apply here.  Furthermore, as numerous commentators have explained but which China continues to ignore, Article 288 of UNCLOS plainly gives the UNCLOS arbitral tribunal the final say on jurisdiction.  Russel was only repeating what is in the plain text of the treaty (UNCLOS) that China signed and ratified.

China’s sharply worded but legally incoherent responses are a sign that it is more nervous about the Philippines arbitration than it has let on in the past. China should just stop complaining about the arbitration and move on. It should have enough diplomatic, military, and political leverage to get past this.  It will get nowhere with its legal arguments.

Dear World Media: The U.S. is NOT Challenging China’s Territorial Claims in the South China Sea (Yet)

by Julian Ku

I have been following closely the U.S. Navy’s plans to use military ships and aircraft to challenge China’s aggressive land reclamation activities in the South China Sea, and China’s not very positive reaction to these plans.  But although there is a real dispute brewing here that could escalate into a sovereignty fight, I think media reports are making this dispute more serious than it actually is.

Contrary to some media reports, the U.S. Navy plans do NOT intend to challenge China’s “sovereignty” claims in the South China Sea. Instead, the U.S. Navy is asserting its rights to freedom of navigation under international law. If we understand the U.S. Navy plans in this context, it may help us defuse (at least somewhat) the growing tensions between the U.S. and China in this region, if only the media would help us out with better reporting.

From CNN, here is an example of how media reporting is making this dispute seem worse than it is.

Above the South China Sea (CNN)The Chinese navy issued warnings eight times as a U.S. surveillance plane on Wednesday swooped over islands that Beijing is using to extend its zone of influence.

The series of man-made islands and the massive Chinese military build-up on them have alarmed the Pentagon, which is carrying out the surveillance flights in order to make clear the U.S. does not recognize China’s territorial claims.

(Emphasis added). This report feeds into the (accurate) narrative about growing tensions between the US and Chinese navies.  In this story, the US Navy is flying “over” the Chinese islands in order to challenge or reject China’s territorial claims.  But later in that same report, CNN says that U.S. Navy is considering “flying such surveillance missions even closer over the islands, as well as sailing U.S. warships within miles of them, as part of the new, more robust U.S. military posture in the area.” (emphasis added).

Here’s the problem.  If the U.S. Navy aircraft featured in the CNN video (a military surveillance plane and “sub hunter”) actually flew “over” the Chinese artificial islands, then why would they consider flying even closer “over” the islands and what would be the significance of sending naval ships?

In fact, the US Navy has tried to make it clear to reporters that they are merely conducting freedom of navigation operations and “that U.S. military aircraft do not fly directly over areas claimed by China in the Spratly Islands.” (in the washington post).  It’s my guess that the Navy hasn’t even flown within 12 nautical miles of the artificial islands.

Why? Because as far as I can tell, this is a standard US Navy “freedom of navigation” operation that it uses to assert international law rights of navigation against numerous countries around the world.  It is NOT, as the CNN and other reports suggest, a challenge to China’s territorial claims.

Freedom of Navigation” operations involve sending US Navy warships into both the 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone and the 12 nautical mile territorial seas recognized under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.  In the view of  the U.S., military warships and aircraft are free to conduct surveillance operations (e.g. spying) in any country’s 200 nm EEZ and surface warships (but not military aircraft or submarines) have the right to “innocent passage” through a country’s 12 nautical mile territorial waters.

The U.S. Navy has been conducting  “freedom of navigation” operations for decades to enforce these views of international law, and it even has a “Freedom of Navigation” website making public where it has been operating. The point of these operations it to publicly challenge a country which is making (in the U.S. view) unjustified legal rights under UNCLOS.  China has a longstanding disagreement with this U.S. interpretation of UNCLOS. So they always make protests, and China has sometimes sent its fighter jets out to harass or challenge US spy aircraft.

But the bottom line: pace CNN, freedom of navigation operations are not challenges to “territorial claims” or “sovereignty.” The US Navy operations assume that the other nation has “sovereignty” over the relevant coastline or island.  So the US Navy operations near China’s artificial islands can assume that China has sovereignty but still demand China allow US military aircraft and ships  transit rights etc. under UNCLOS.

It is worth noting that the U.S. could escalate the dispute with China.  The U.S. might take the view that China is building artificial islands on top  of reefs or submerged features which do not entitle China to any legal rights at all (See UNCLOS, Art.60(8): “Artificial islands, installations and structures do not possess the status of islands. They have no territorial sea of their own, and their presence does not affect the delimitation of the territorial sea, the exclusive economic zone or the continental shelf.”).  If so, then the US would fly within 12 nm miles or even directly “over” the artificial islands. Such operations would effectively be a direct challenge  to a China’s territorial claims, because the U.S. would be taking the view that China has no territorial basis at all for claims in the South China Sea.

“Challenging legal rights under UNCLOS” doesn’t make for very sexy headlines or get many clicks as compared to “challenging China’s territorial claims”. But it is worth parsing media reports about US Navy activities in the South China Sea very carefully, and it would be nice of those well-sourced reporters would clarify just how close the US Navy is going to fly/sail to China’s reclaimed islands.

Maybe the U.S. government should directly challenge China’s territorial claims and sovereignty claims.  I am not sure in my own mind whether the U.S. should take that next step.   But for now, the U.S. hasn’t challenged China’s territorial claims yet, and I wish reporters would stop making it seem like it is doing so.

Am I Missing Something or Does the New Trade Promotion Authority Bill Violate the U.S. Constitution?

by Julian Ku

I am slammed with a couple of projects right now, but I can’t help throwing this question out to the legal blogosphere.  Does the new “Bipartisan Trade Priorities and Accountability Act” recently introduced by leading U.S. Senators violate the U.S. Constitution’s bicameralism and presentment requirements as stated by the U.S. Supreme Court in INS v. Chadha?

The BTPAA seems crucial as the U.S. enters the final stages of its negotiations over the “Trans Pacific Partnership” (TPP) with Asia and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with Europe because it allows the President to submit his negotiated trade agreements for a “fast-track” up and down vote that Congress cannot amend.

Because of congressional opposition, the new trade promotion bill has a provision that looks a lot like a “legislative veto” that allows a resolution passed by a majority vote by one House of Congress to withdraw the “fast-track” authority.   Here seems to be the key language.

(A) IN GENERAL.—The trade authorities procedures shall not apply to any implementing bill submitted with respect to a trade agreement or trade agreements entered into under section 3(b) if during the 60-day period beginning on the date that one House of Congress agrees to a procedural disapproval resolution for lack of notice or consultations with respect to such trade agreement or agreements, the other House separately agrees to a procedural disapproval resolution with respect to such trade agreement or agreements.

(B) PROCEDURAL DISAPPROVAL RESOLUTION.—(i) For purposes of this paragraph, the term ‘‘procedural disapproval resolution’’ means a resolution of either House of Congress, the sole matter after the resolving clause of which is as follows: ‘‘That the President has failed or refused to notify or consult in accordance with the Bipartisan Congressional Trade Priorities and Accountability Act of 2015 on negotiations with respect to ____ and, therefore, the trade authorities procedures under that Act shall not apply to any implementing bill submitted with respect to such trade agreement or agreements.’’, with the blank space being filled with a description of the trade agreement or agreements with respect to which the President is considered to have failed or refused to notify or consult.

Am I missing something? Even if (as the provision seems to say), a resolution of both houses is needed to withdraw fast track authority, the joint resolution doesn’t satisfy the presentment (to the President) requirement in the Constitution that the Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld in cases like INS v. Chadha and Clinton v. City of New York.  Unless the President has an opportunity to veto the “procedural disapproval resolution,” I doubt this law is constitutional.  I think the only saving grace is that the resolutions  withdrawing fast track can only be invoked if the President fails to notify or consult rather than on the merits.  But I am still very doubtful this difference matters. I haven’t carefully examined all of the legislation’s provisions, but this does strike me as an issue worth discussing.  Comments welcome!

Guest Post: China As a Shaper of International Law?

by Sonya Sceats

[Sonya Sceats is Associate Fellow in the International Law Programme at Chatham House where she leads a project on the implications of China’s rise for the international human rights system. Follow @SonyaSceats and @CHIntLaw]

China punches below its weight in the development of international law, despite its growing international power and the participation of Chinese representatives and experts in various international law-making bodies. Judging by recent statements of intent from the Chinese government, this might be about to change.

As Julian Ku indicated in a recent post, China is ramping up portrayal of itself as a staunch defender of international law. China has long presented itself as an upholder of the UN Charter, especially on questions related to use of force, but in the signed article cited by Julian, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi sought to broaden the point.

It is right to view this rhetoric as an attempt by China, as an ascending but conservative power, to harness law to its longstanding political agenda to constrain (US) hegemonic power and promote state equality. But the Foreign Minister’s article should also be seen as one of the opening moves in China’s new play to expand its influence on international law.

The key lies in a directive buried deeply in the outcome document from the 4th Plenary Session of the 18th Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, known colloquially as the Rule of Law plenum. The plenum concluded on 23 October 2014, the day before the Foreign Minister released his article. According to the document, China must:

Vigorously participate in the formulation of international norms, promote the handling of foreign-related economic and social affairs according to the law, strengthen our country’s discourse power and influence in international legal affairs, use legal methods to safeguard our country’s sovereignty, security and development interests.

China, therefore, wishes to transform itself from a norm-taker to a norm-shaper internationally.

Elsewhere I have argued that China’s concerted push to mould global norms on the internet should be understood as a vanguard expression of these ambitions. This analysis drew on discussions within a global expert network we launched last year as a means of engaging with the growing community of Chinese international lawyers writing, thinking and teaching about international human rights and related areas of international law.

To date, we have held two roundtable meetings for this network, the first in London and the second in Beijing. Both meetings were held in collaboration with China University of  Political Science and Law (CUPL), one of China’s leading law schools and probably the only university in the world with an entire faculty of international law.

Chatham House’s work on these issues dates back to 2012 when we launched a project on China and the international human rights system. This work culminated in a research report which has become a key resource for diplomats, human rights advocates and others (including inside China) seeking to understand China’s behaviour in the international human rights system and engage with and influence China on these issues.

In the course of this research, we visited China to see if Chinese experts would be willing to share views on these matters. We learned that there were lively debates on these issues in China and that international lawyers working in this area were eager for more structured opportunities to engage with their peers outside China. Our network aims to help meet this need.

Professor Sarah Cleveland, Columbia Law School, and Professor Ling Yan, China University of Political Science and Law, at the first meeting of the International Law Programme’s global experts network at Chatham House in April 2014. Photo used with permission from Chatham House.

Professor Sarah Cleveland, Columbia Law School, and Professor Ling Yan, China University of Political Science and Law, at the first meeting of the International Law Programme’s global experts network at Chatham House in April 2014. Photo used with permission from Chatham House.

At our first meeting at Chatham House in London, Chinese experts spoke of the need for their country to strengthen its contribution to the field of international law. It is clear from the Rule of Law plenum outcome document that the Chinese government now shares this aspiration. The government also pledged in the document to:

Establish foreign-oriented rule of law talent teams who thoroughly understand international legal rules and are good at dealing with foreign-oriented legal affairs.

Of course, China’s desire to exert more influence on international law will not automatically lead to greater influence, but an investment in home-grown capabilities is a first step. It will be interesting to see how these ‘talent teams’ develop, how active they will be in international legal forums, and whether there will be two-way traffic between these experts and their government in relation to China’s positions on international rules and participation in international institutions and dispute resolution mechanisms.

Our second meeting at CUPL, just three weeks after the plenum, was an early opportunity to explore the potential implications of China’s plans, now explicit, to increase its impact on international law. Our discussions traversed a range of public international law areas relating to individual rights, including international human rights, criminal and humanitarian law, and we were pleased to have OJ’s Kevin Jon Heller among our participants.

Some of the insights generated from these discussions to date include:

  • While most commentary of the Rule of Law plenum outside China was highly sceptical, many Chinese legal academics regard it as a progressive development – strong statements about the authority of the constitution are seen as particularly significant;
  • Chinese experts report signs that China may be moving beyond the human rights hierarchy it has traditionally promoted in which socio-economic rights are favoured over civil and political rights;
  • Most Chinese international law scholars we have engaged with consider that, despite the delays, China is sincere in its stated commitment to ratifying the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights;
  • Even Chinese members of the network with strong internationalist leanings object to the confrontational attitude towards China in bodies like the UN Human Rights Council;
  • China’s commitment in principle to the concept of the Responsibility to Protect seems to have survived the experience of Libya and some Chinese experts consider that this is an area where China’s arch-sovereigntist approach could shift in the future; and
  • Many Chinese international lawyers were deeply disappointed by China’s decision not to sign the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court and international criminal law is a fast developing sub-discipline of international law in China.

To find out more, read the summaries of our roundtable meetings prepared in accordance with the Chatham House Rule:

Chinese Approaches to Public International Law and the Rights of Individuals

Chinese Approaches to Public International Law and the Rights of Individuals – Part Two

Does Promoting Democracy in Hong Kong Violate the Principle of Non-Interference in Domestic Affairs?

by Julian Ku

A bipartisan group of US lawmakers proposed the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act last week.  The proposed law would “would enhance U.S. monitoring of Hong Kong’s autonomy and human rights and ensure that these issues remain a cornerstone of U.S. policy,” according to the bill’s chief sponsor, Rep. Chris Smith.

Reactions in Hong Kong and China are already pretty negative.

“We don’t want foreign governments or foreigners to intervene in affairs that can be handled by ourselves,” [Hong Kong Justice Secretary Rimsky Yuen Kwok-keung] said, adding that the Beijing and Hong Kong governments, Hongkongers themselves and the city’s lawmakers were the only stakeholders in the city’s political reform.”

If the bill gets closer to passage, one can imagine China will invoke the principle of “non-interference” in domestic affairs and sovereignty as an international law argument against the bill.  So this could set up an interesting contrast in views on how this principle is understood and interpreted.

In fact, the proposed bill is quite limited in scope.  All it requires is for the U.S. Secretary of State to annually certify “whether Hong Kong is sufficiently autonomous to justify separate treatment different from that accorded the People’s Republic of China in any new laws, agreements, treaties, or arrangements entered into between the United States and Hong Kong after the date of the enactment of such Act.”

It does not even threaten to change existing laws and treaties (such as the visa waiver provision for HK residents or the extradition agreement with HK).  It just threatens to limit “any new laws, agreements..treaties” (emphasis added). Nor does the proposed law actually require “genuine” democratic suffrage or compliance with the UK-China Joint Agreement or any other hard metric that the recent protests in Hong Kong had argued for.  Certification can be made as long as HK remains “sufficiently autonomous” in the opinion of the US Secretary of State and as long as he “considers” the Joint Agreement’s requirements in his certifcation.

Moreover, even this pretty easy requirement can be waived by the Secretary of State is in US national interests.  For this reason, I would be surprised if this bill becomes controversial within Congress or opposed by the State Department.

Nonetheless, it is worth asking: Is it a violation of the principle of non-interference to condition new agreements and arrangements with Hong Kong on the progress of domestic arrangements in China?  I don’t think most US international lawyers would find this gentle prodding to be a credible violation of the non-interference principle (see this useful summary of the principle from Princeton here), but I am fairly sure many Chinese international lawyers would see things differently.  If the bill progresses, we may find out.

Will Japan Embrace the “Illegal But Legitimate” View of the UN Charter’s Limits on Use of Force?

by Julian Ku

Japan has been slowly moving to modify its domestic law, both constitutional and legislative, restricting the use of its military forces outside of Japan.  In its latest political discussions, it is worth noting that Komeito, a partner to the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, has been insisting on the three “Kitagawa” principles as a basis for any new law governing the use of force overseas.  The three principles are: “legitimacy under international law, public understanding and democratic rule, and ensuring the safety of SDF personnel.”

Interestingly, the ruling party has been hesitant to fully embrace the “legitimacy under international law” requirement, which might be read to require UN Security Council authorization for most overseas uses of military force. Noting that China has a veto in that body, ruling party lawmakers would like to make sure “legitimate under international law” is given a broader meaning.

“In terms of international law, legitimacy isn’t necessarily limited to [those situations involving] a U.N. resolution,” said a senior LDP official. “We’d like to discuss what cases would be legitimate.”

The US and Western powers have used this “illegal but legitimate” analysis to justify actions in Kosovo and elsewhere.  It will be interesting to see if Japan eventually adopts some version of this approach.  It would be wise to do so from a practical perspective, since many scenarios where Japanese forces would act “overseas” including the Senkakus, Taiwan, Korea, or Syria may not qualify as “self-defense” under the U.N. Charter.  But such a move would chip away again at the UN Charter’s limits on the use of military force.

China’s Overbroad (Draft) Definition of Terrorism

by Kevin Jon Heller

Today’s a travel day, so I don’t have time to write a full post. But I thought I’d flag a very interesting article in The Diplomat about China’s new draft anti-terrorism bill, which seems to have a strong chance of becoming law. Here’s a snippet:

Obviously owing to the worrisome escalation of terrorist acts since the Tiananmen Square attack in October 2013, Chinese authorities decided to enact a comprehensive anti-terrorism law to address the new situation. Such a law requires, first and foremost, a well-reasoned definition of terrorism. Surprisingly, the draft law did not take up the terrorism definition that had been offered by the anti-terrorism Decision in 2011. According to Article 104 of the draft law, “terrorism” means “any thought, speech, or activity that, by means of violence, sabotage, or threat, aims to generate social panic, influence national policy-making, create ethnic hatred, subvert state power, or split the state.”

Article 104 goes on to flesh out the keyword “terrorist activity” as referred to in the “terrorism” definition. Accordingly, “terrorist activities” include (a) propagating, inciting, or instigating terrorism; or (b) forming, leading or participating in an terrorist organization; or (c) organizing, plotting, or implementing a terrorist action; or (d) supporting, assisting, or facilitating a terrorist organization or individual through the provision of information, funds, material, equipment, technologies or venues; or (e) other terrorist activities.


Absent a comprehensive and universal definition of terrorism, individual countries, including China, are left with the authority to interpret the term for themselves. Compared with Western liberal countries, China has greater discretion to combat terrorism in an effective – albeit repressive – manner. However, whenever China resolves to address the scourge of terrorism, it must also face the challenge of how to strike a proper balance between security and liberty.

Before passing the anti-terrorism law, Chinese law-makers need to overhaul the definition of terrorism to guarantee that terrorism is described as a serious crime with an additional quality that calls both for international concern and harsh treatment. In addition, proper procedural safeguards regarding terror lists should be introduced to ensure that the definition of terrorism does not capture an unreasonably wide range of persons, or, if this happens, that the affected persons will not be subject to unreasonable consequences.

The article contains a nice comparison of the draft Chinese law with the elements of most international conventions on terrorism. It’s well worth a read.

The Haunting “I Cannot Recall (Ballad of Manus Island)”

by Kevin Jon Heller

Not surprisingly given where I perch on the political spectrum, I love protest songs. One of my favourite jogging playlists is a disparate collection of classics — Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth,” Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction,” Country Joe and the Fish’s “I Feel Like I’m Fixin to Die Rag,” Paul Revere and the Raiders’ “Indian Reservation,” Phil Och’s “I Ain’t Marching Anymore” (the greatest anti-war song ever), and a bunch of others.

I’ve now added a new song to my playlist: Peter Joseph Head’s “I Cannot Recall (Ballad of Manus Island),” a very unusual jazz/spoken-word hybrid about Australia’s horrific detention centre in Papua New Guinea. Manus Island has been much in the news lately, because the refugees detained there have gone on a hunger strike — and tried to kill themselves by swallowing razor blades and laundry detergent — to protest their confinement and living conditions. Here is the YouTube video; the spoken words seem to be based on the transcript of a lawsuit involving the detention centre:

You can read about the Melbourne-based Head here, and you can find a higher-quality recording of the song here. I’ve embedded the YouTube video so readers can see images of Manus Island.

Listen. Read. Learn.


H/T: Bianca Dillon.

Guest Post: Accountability Impact or Impasse? The Curious Case of the North Korean Inquiry

by Catherine Harwood

[Catherine Harwood is a PhD candidate at the Grotius Centre for International Legal Studies at Leiden University]

After over a decade of reports alerting the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) to serious human rights violations in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea), in March 2013 the Council decided to establish an international commission of inquiry to investigate those allegations and to ensure “full accountability, in particular where these violations may amount to crimes against humanity”. Denied access to North Korea, the Commission travelled to several countries to hear from victims and witnesses. In a strong commitment to transparency, the Commission held public hearings and made many testimonies and exhibits available online. A year later, its report recorded a litany of serious human right abuses. The Commission found reasonable grounds to believe that North Korea had committed serious human rights violations and that many senior officials had committed crimes against humanity [para. 1225]. It issued a host of recommendations, including that the Security Council refer North Korea, a non-state party to the Rome Statute, to the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Although the Commission dissolved upon the delivery of its report, its accountability recommendations reverberated beyond the HRC and have remained on the intergovernmental diplomatic agenda. This contribution discusses some interesting features of the Commission’s findings and tracks the consequences of its report – some of which have been curious and unexpected – before offering some thoughts as to the impact of the inquiry in relation to the goal of ensuring accountability.


Game On with New Player? Vietnam Files Statement Against China at UN Arbitral Tribunal

by Julian Ku

The government of Vietnam appears to have filed a statement of its legal views with the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea arbitral tribunal formed to resolve the Philippines-China dispute in the South China Sea.  It is a little unclear exactly what Vietnam has filed.  According to its Ministry of Foreign Affairs website:

In response to the question on Viet Nam’s position regarding the South China Sea Arbitration case, spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Viet Nam Le Hai Binh affirmed that:
“To protect its legal rights and interests in the East Sea which may be affected in the South China Sea Arbitration case, Viet Nam has expressed its position to the Tribunal regarding this case, and requested the Tribunal to pay due attention to the legal rights and interests of Viet Nam.”/.

According to the South China Morning Post, the Vietnamese submission has three points.

1) It supports the Philippines on the question of the tribunal’s jurisdiction.
2) It asks the tribunal to give due regard to Vietnam’s legal rights and interests
3) It rejects the legality of the Chinese “nine-dash line”.

I think this filing has much more political than legal significance.  As a legal matter, I don’t think there is any procedure in the UNCLOS dispute settlement system for third-party interventions, so I think this is really just like sending a letter to the arbitral tribunal.  It has no legal significance, and the tribunal has no obligation to consider it. But of course, it has the right to do so if it believes it is relevant to the dispute before it.

On the other hand, this is a political victory for the Philippines, since it means that Vietnam has tacitly agreed to join a common front against China.  I remain skeptical (as I wrote yesterday) of the Philippines’ legal strategy, even with this support from Vietnam, because China has the same arguments against Vietnam and it will not likely change course.   The next question: Will Vietnam file its own legal claim and form its own arbitral tribunal? That might push China into a different response, but I would still bet against it.

Why the Philippines’ Arbitration Against China is Doomed to Fail

by Julian Ku

Over at The National Interest, I have an essay considering the strategic implications of the Philippines arbitration claim against China.  I argue that the Philippines made a mistake by trying to force China into an arbitration under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, and that their “lawfare” strategy is probably going to backfire.

Due in part to domestic pressures for a robust nationalism in defense of all territorial claims, China has not yet reached the point where arbitration seems like a reasonable way to settle its maritime disputes.  And since it has now spent months denouncing the Philippines arbitration as illegal and illegitimate in its domestic press and internationally, it will be even harder to accept any form of international dispute resolution in the future.

This is why the Philippines’ effort to force China to accept arbitration now is doomed to fail and will probably backfire. The Philippines will be in no stronger position vis-à-vis China than it was before the arbitration, even if it wins an award.  Meanwhile, the overall credibility and effectiveness of the UNCLOS dispute resolution system will be called into question.  And the U.S. goal of a China that “abides by and reinforces” international law and norms will be even farther off.


What Does China Mean When It Celebrates the “International Rule of Law”?

by Julian Ku

In observance of United Nations Day on October 24, China’s foreign minister Wang Yi issued a long statement expressing China’s view of itself as a “staunch defender and builder of international law” (Chinese version here). As China-watchers know, China’s Communist Party has just completed its “Fourth Plenum” (sort of a Party leadership strategy meeting) on the theme of the promotion of the rule of law, so it is not surprising that China’s leadership would have something to say about the international rule of law as well.

The statement is pretty predictable (and largely unobjectionable) in its broad pledge for Chinese support to “international law” or the “international rule of law.”  It is hardly pathbreaking.  Still, as I have suggested in earlier posts, China’s government tends to have a slightly different view on what constitutes “international law” as compared to the United States or Europe.  So while much of the statement is pretty anodyne (it is communist-party-speak, after all), there are a few points relating to China’s emphasis on sovereignty and its allergy to human rights that are worth noting:

1) International Law and China’s History of National Humiliation

The statement places China’s commitment to international law in the context of its historical struggles facing foreign oppression in invasion beginning with the Opium War of the 1840s.  This reference to China’s historical weakness in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is standard nationalist fare in China, but it is interesting that it is linked here to modern international law. As the statement notes, “[s]eeing the contrast between China’s past and present, the Chinese people fully recognize how valuable sovereignty, independence and peace are.”  I think this historical experience is a useful explanation for why there are deep roots to the version of international law presented here.  For China, international law is closely linked to its achievement of independence from foreign powers, and there is no principle more dear to China in international law than “sovereignty” and independence from foreign domination.  Those of us educated in the States have been taught that sovereignty is usually an obstacle to the promotion of international law (Louis Henkin even called it the “S” word), but that concept is still hard to sell in China.

2) Sovereignty 5:  Human Rights 0

Indeed, the statement mentions “sovereignty” five times as a fundamental principle of international law, as referenced in the United Nations Charter. Thus, the statement cites certain universally recognized norms of international law and relations such as

…[A]s respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, peaceful settlement of international disputes and non-interference in the internal affairs of others, as enshrined in the UN Charter, are the foundation stones upon which modern international law and conduct of international relations are built.

This is right out of Article II of the UN Charter.  But it is hard to imagine a statement by the United States about international law that did not also mention the UN Charter’s commitment to the protection of human rights.  To be sure, human rights protection is not in Article II of the UN Charter’s list of “Principles” but it is odd (at least to an American) to see it ignored so completely here.

3) Just Say No to Responsibility to Protect 

The statement takes direct aim at those countries who are interventionist.

Hegemonism, power politics and all forms of “new interventionism” pose a direct challenge to basic principles of international law including respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity and non-interference in other countries’ internal affairs. Some countries follow a pragmatist or a double-standard approach to international law, using whatever that suits their interests and abandoning whatever that does not.

Hmm.. I wonder which country or countries it is referring to here?  This position also reflects longstanding Chinese policy against any kind of military intervention (and most other kinds as well) no matter what the justification.  So don’t count on a Chinese vote for that Syria intervention.

4) Go Democracy (between, but not within, nations)!

The statement also endorses democracy…that is to say, democracy in international lawmaking.  It accuses some countries (the One-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named) of trying to make “rules of certain countries as “international rules”, and their standards “international standards”. I am guessing this is clearly a shot at the U.S. in areas as varied as trade laws, IP, and human rights.

5) Philippines and UNCLOS arbitral tribunal: Don’t You Dare Ruin International Law

Not surprisingly, the statement takes aim at international and national courts.   It declares:

“National and international judicial institutions should avoid overstepping their authority in interpreting and applying international law. Still less should they encroach on the rights and interests of other countries under the pretext of”the rule of law” in total disregard of objectivity and fairness.”

I think this is clearly a warning signal to the UNCLOS arbitral tribunal formed to resolve the Philippines claim against China.  This is another sign there will be no backing down on this arbitration. China is going to continue to loudly proclaim its commitment to rule of law, and continue to reject and maybe even denigrate the legitimacy of this arbitration.

6) International Rule OF Law, not Rule BY Law

Finally, I’ll note that the statement’s use of the phrase “international rule of law” might help clarify a debate among China-watchers as to what China means by the phrase “rule of law.”  As Josh Chin has usefully explained in the Wall Street Journal here, the Chinese phrase “法治“ (fazhi) is often translated as “rule of law” but could also be translated as “rule by law”.  Indeed, there is a traditional Chinese “Legalist” tradition that thinks of law as an instrument for ruling society, but less so as a constraint on lawmakers and government.  Most China-watchers would probably say that “rule by law” is a more accurate translation of what the Chinese Communist Party means when they call for the promotion of the “法治” (fazhi) in domestic reforms, since most expect the Party to remain effectively above the law for most key matters in the future, but for law to be used as a mechanism of social and political control of everyone else.

No matter what the Party means domestically by 法治 (fazhi), it is clear that its use internationally fits within the Western conception of law as an autonomous force constraining state power and preserving state equality.

In promoting international rule of law, the most important thing is to use universally applicable rules in international relations to distinguish right and wrong, end disputes and seek a win-win solution through coordination. This is vital to international rule of law. The formulation, interpretation and application of international law should all be conducive to this goal. Under no circumstances should we inflate the arrogance of hegemonism and power politics, still less use international rule of law to instigate disagreement and friction,for it will only lead us to a wrong direction.

Indeed, in its call for universally applicable principles, democratic lawmaking, and the use of law to restrain strong states from taking advantage of the weak, the Chinese Communist Party is invoking a version of rule of law that many Westerners would be familiar with.  It will be interesting to see if this conception bleeds over into the Party’s push for domestic rule of/by law reform.