I have been mildly obsessed with the dispute between the Philippines and China for over three years now. It touches on so many areas of my research interest: international courts, China, and the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea. So I am almost sad that the dispute, at least for legal purposes, finally ended today with the arbitral tribunal’s sweeping award in favor of the Philippines.
Since the beginning of the arbitration process, I have wondered what the impact of China’s boycott would be on the future viability of the UNCLOS system of dispute settlement. For the first two years of the dispute, I was skeptical that China would suffer any meaningful damage from defying the UNCLOS arbitral system. Thus, I wondered if, combined with Russia’s almost cavalier defiance of an ITLOS proceeding involving Greenpeace, the end result in this process would be a toothless UNCLOS dispute settlement process of little value or significance. This was one of the reasons I sharply criticized the Philippines for adopting a fruitless “lawfare” strategy.
Time will tell, but early reviews point to me being wrong. China is much more vulnerable to “shamefare” than I had imagined. The evidence for China’s vulnerability lies, I think, in the extraordinary over-the-top global public relations campaign to denigrate and delegitimize the award before it was even issued. If China thought the award would have little impact, it would not have dragooned its diplomatic service, its state-run media, and even its civil society into a huge, sometimes nasty PR effort against the award.
Still, the game must run its course. The key is how other nations not named the Philippines or the U.S. react to the award. If most key nations, including China’s regional neighbors, follow the line set out by the U.S. and call upon China to comply with the award, then China’s isolation on this issue will be significant. The G-7 is expected to follow this path, and it is possible that Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia will do so as well. If South Korea, Australia, and India can also be brought on board, then China will have suffered a diplomatic as well as a legal defeat. Why? Because any aggressive Chinese action to respond to the award, such as by militarizing its artificial islands or even building new ones, will be framed as a further violation of China’s international obligations. China will have its own mini-Crimea crisis, and it will be hard for it to gain legitimacy for its actions.
On the other hand, no matter how many government press releases denounce China, it is hard to imagine China ever complying with the award. It can’t, even if it wanted to, since it has locked itself into a rigid public position against the award in front of the world and its own people. So the arbitral award will go unenforced and unimplemented for the foreseeable future. No matter how you slice it, an unenforced award is not a sign of a strong and effective legal system. UNCLOS dispute settlement can be ignored, not without cost, but certainly it can be ignored.
On balance, however, the UNCLOS system seems to have been strengthened by today’s ruling. The U.S. and other key countries seem to have rallied in support of it, and the tribunal’s findings seem to carry a fair amount of credibility with most governments. Indeed, the U.S. now seems to endorse the UNCLOS dispute settlement system with more vigor than one might expect for a non-party. It seems that UNCLOS dispute settlement will survive in a post-Philippines v. China world after all.