Archive of posts for category
Asia-Pacific

The South China Sea Arbitration is Here! And China Will Not Be Happy

by Julian Ku

The much-anticipated long awaited South China Sea Arbitration award on the merits is here!  It is a slam-dunk, complete, utter, massive, total legal victory for the Philippines on all counts (lots of metaphors here, none are quite sufficient). Essentially, the tribunal ruled in favor of almost all of the Philippines’ claims in the arbitration.  Perhaps the most headline friendly result: The Nine Dash Line has been ruled inconsistent with China’s obligations under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

I have been mostly reacting on twitter this morning, and I am working on some related posts here and elsewhere. This case brings to an end the long process initiated by the Philippines back in 2013 (links to my discussion of them are below).  We will be discussing and debating the impact of this award for a while.

The NY Times on Bitcoins and China

by Chris Borgen

William Gibson, repurposing a Gertrude Stein quip, said about cyberspace “there’s no there, there” capturing the ethos of the internet as a place beyond the physical world of borders and jurisdiction.  Bitcoin melded cryptography and networked processing to attempt to make a currency that was not based in or controlled by any state.

But the internet is based on servers and fiber-optic cable and telecom switching stations that are firmly rooted in the physical world.  The cloud is made out of metal and plastic and glass. And as for Bitcoin, there increasingly is a there, there. And “there” is China. (For a quick background on Bitcoin, see this video, which explains how Bitcoin builds a payment system that replaces trust and personal allegiance with “mathematical confidence” or  this article.)

The New York Times reports how Chinese companies have come to dominate the production of Bitcoins:

In its early conception, Bitcoin was to exist beyond the control of any single government or country. It would be based everywhere and nowhere.

Yet despite the talk of a borderless currency, a handful of Chinese companies have effectively assumed majority control of the Bitcoin network. They have done so through canny investments and vast farms of computer servers dispersed around the country. The American delegation flew to Beijing because that was where much of the Bitcoin power was concentrated…

…But China’s clout is raising worries about Bitcoin’s independence and decentralization, which was supposed to give the technology freedom from the sort of government crackdowns and interventions that are commonplace in the Chinese financial world.

“The concentration in a single jurisdiction does not bode well,” said Emin Gun Sirer, a professor at Cornell and a Bitcoin researcher. “We need to pay attention to these things if we want decentralization to be a meaningful thing.”

What follows is a story considering the possible factors that contributed to Bitcoin’s popularity in China (including attempts to avoid government financial regulators and the popularity of online gambling) which, in turn, incentivized large investments in Bitcoin businesses, leading to the situation where “over 70 percent of the transactions on the Bitcoin network were going through just four Chinese companies…”

And, through it all, there is the question as to whether these and other Chinese companies even want to exercise leadership over Bitcoin at all. There is an interesting question of the psychology of power. The frame of the NY Times story is a meeting that took place in China between US and Chinese corporate leaders. The Americans flew to China because, as the Times put it, “that was where much of the Bitcoin power was concentrated.” They tried to persuade Chinese leadership to make certain changes to Bitcoin but were unable to do so. They also expressed frustration at the reluctance of the Chinese companies to exercise leadership in the industry. But then consider this description by one of the Chinese CEO of the same meeting:

“It was almost like imperialistic Westerners coming to China and telling us what to do… There has been a history on this. The Chinese people have long memories.”

Same room; completely different views of the dynamics of the meeting.

So, before we deploy too much post-modern, post-Westphalian, post-everything analysis to cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin or to the internet more generally, perhaps we need to  give jurisdiction, territory, memory, and psychology a second look. There is a there, there.

I’d Like to Be Under the South China Sea in a Crewed Deep Sea Platform in the Shade

by Chris Borgen

Earlier this week, Julian and I each posted about the international legal issues of the Moon and asteroid mining plans of U.S. companies. Those projects may have sounded like something out of Space 1999 but now we hear of one of China’s near-term priorities that sounds like SeaLab 2020.

Bloomberg reports:

China is speeding up efforts to design and build a manned deep-sea platform to help it hunt for minerals in the South China Sea, one that may also serve a military purpose in the disputed waters.

Such an oceanic “space station” would be located as much as 3,000 meters (9,800 feet) below the surface…

This would be by far the deepest long-term undersea facility (as opposed to a deep sea vessel, such as a submarine). By way of context, the NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations Facility (NEEMO), the “world’s only undersea research station” is anchored at a depth of 62 feet.

China’s leadership explains that, in part, this base will help with a new frontier of resource development, using rhetoric that is at times similar to the arguments some make concerning private space ventures on the Moon and asteroids:

President Xi Jinping said at a national science conference in May: “The deep sea contains treasures that remain undiscovered and undeveloped, and in order to obtain these treasures we have to control key technologies in getting into the deep sea, discovering the deep sea, and developing the deep sea.”

But, beyond looking for deep sea resources, the concern is that the base is part of China’s gambit for sovereignty over much of the South China Sea.  However, while establishing this undersea platform may become part of China’s political argument for its sovereignty claims, it does nothing to support the legal argument. Under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), this undersea platform would probably be treated as an “artificial island,” like an oil rig.  At the time that UNCLOS was being drafted, large undersea bases were more the province of James Bond movies than treaty negotiations, so the closest analogy in the text is what would likely be applied in this case.  (For a discussion on sea platforms, “seasteading,” and sovereignty claims by non-state actors, see this post.)

Although it is not clear where the location of this undersea lab would be, UNCLOS has similar provisions concerning artificial islands located in an Exclusive Economic Zone (article 60) or on the continental shelf (article 80, which refers back to the article 60 text, with any applicable adjustments).

The text from article 60 states:

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.

So, in short, building this base would not change China’s territorial rights.

However, the concern is that, while it may not help the legal argument, another goal of the base may be to bolster the political argument with some military muscle. The Bloomberg article quotes the following:

“To develop the ocean is an important strategy for the Chinese government, but the deep sea space station is not designed against any country or region,” said Xu Liping, a senior researcher for Southeast Asian affairs at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a government-run institute.

“China’s project will be mainly for civil use, but we can’t rule out it will carry some military functions,” Xu said. “Many countries in the world have been researching these kind of deep water projects and China is just one of those nations.”

Whether China actually builds this base–and if so, where–remains to be seen. If it does so, it will also be interesting to assess whether the base turns out to be most useful as a scientific research facility, a political gambit, or a military base.

Why the World Cup of the Unrecognized Matters [Updated]

by Chris Borgen

States and nations are not the same thing.  A nation is a “people,” itself a difficult concept to define under international law. A state is a recognized political entity that meets certain criteria. International lawyers will tell you that the characteristics of statehood include a defined territory, a government, a permanent population, and the ability to enter into foreign relations.

State formation in the 19th century and also right after World War I often sought to build states for nations (hence the term “nation-state”) but the terms are not coterminous.

So what are the hallmarks of nationhood? Many know in their hearts that there may be no more important mark of nationhood than a national soccer team. C’mon, you know it’s true.

And sometimes, peoples would like to remind you that they are nations—if not states!—and want to be recognized as such (nations or states, it gets a little blurry).

So, pay attention, soccer fans and international lawyers, because this weekend will be the final match in the 2016 Confederation of Independent Football Associations (ConIFA) World Football Cup, sometimes referred to as the World Cup of the unrecognized.  According to this NPR report, host Abkhazia is the current favorite after Western Armenia and Kurdistan were unexpectedly eliminated.

The first ConIFA World Football Cup was played in 2014 and seems to be the successor to the VIVA World Cup, about which I had previously written.

ConIFA should not be confused with FIFA, the international federation of football associations. As I had explained in a post from a couple of years ago, membership in FIFA is not based on being a state, but rather on being a football association.  Thus, if you look at a list of FIFA member associations, as England and Wales are separate associations, they have separate World Cup teams. Nonetheless, joining FIFA can be subject at times to some of the same political tensions as the recognition of a state.

According to FIFA’s statutes (.pdf), to be eligible to become a member of FIFA, an applicant must first be a member of one of the six main football confederations: the Confederación Sudamericana de Fútbol (CONMEBOL), the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), the Union des Associations Européennes de Football (UEFA), the Confédération Africaine de Football (CAF), the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF), or the Oceania Football Confederation (OFC). Without going into all the statutes of these individual confederations, it is likely that some vote among the existing member associations in a given confederation will be a first hurdle that an aspirant FIFA-member must pass. (See, for example, UEFA’s rules (.pdf).)

Thus, although membership in FIFA is technically not based on statehood, the process largely relies on statehood and state-based football organizations (but for noted exceptions, such as England and Wales). Consequently, unrecognized entities such as South Ossetia and Nagorno Karabakh have little chance of seeing their football associations become part of a confederation, let alone FIFA.

Now consider ConIFA’s  membership rules, which are linked not to statehood, but to “nationhood” or being a “people”:

CONIFA is made for national teams that represent a nation which is not a member of FIFA (yet). For that reason only non-members of FIFA can join CONIFA. The second requirement is that the applicant is represent of a nation. The following table explains in detail what we consider a “nation”:

1.The Football Association is a member of one of the six continental confederations of FIFA.

2. The entity represented by the Football Association is a member of the IOC.

3. The entity represented by the Football Association is a member of one of the member federations of ARISF.

4. The entity represented by the Football Association is in possession of an ISO 3166-1 country code.

5. The entity represented by the Football Association is a de-facto independent territory.

6. The entity represented by the Football Association is included on the United Nations list of non-self-governing territories.

7. The entity represented by the Football Association is included in directory of countries and territories of the TCC.

8. The entity represented by the Football Association is a member of UNPO [Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization] and/or FUEN [Federal Union of European Nationalities].

9. The entity represented by the Football Association is a minority included in the World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples.

10. The entity represented by the Football Association is a linguistic minority, the language of which is included on the ISO 639.2 list.

Every Football Association that fulfills at least one of the above criteria is very welcome to apply for CONIFA membership!

[Emphases and bracketed text added.]

As for the aspiration of at least some of these entities to become generally recognized as states, consider the parenthetical “(yet)” from the first sentence.

And why might a a sports tournament be important to people with much bigger issues to worry about? Because you can cheer your team, wave your flag, feel a sense of unity, sing when your winning and… yes, you can actually win. And if you don’t there’s always next year.

When you live in an unrecognized regime, you take your wins where you can get them.

Whether any of these associations become part of FIFA, let alone whether or not those entities that also seek to be recognized as states will ever achieve that goal, is a long and doubtful journey.  But in many cases that is due to reasons of military intervention, history, and/or international law. For today, there is a football to be played.

Trump’s Proposed Great Chinese Tariff Wall

by Roger Alford

Chinese Great WallUnfortunately Republican primary voters have made the remarkable choice to take Donald Trump seriously, and therefore we now have little choice but to contemplate the ramifications of a Trump presidency for United States foreign policy.

In terms of U.S. trade, Donald Trump would be an unmitigated disaster. Trump, of course, has a penchant for incendiary comments, and his statements regarding international trade are as ludicrous and uninformed as much of his other foreign policy positions. Almost everything Trumps says about Chinese trade is wrong. “We don’t win anymore,” “They are taking our jobs,” and “They don’t play fair.” These are all platitudes without substance, but a significant percentage of Americans are buying his snake oil. The answer to our Chinese problem, according to Trump, is a trade war. “The only power that we have with China is massive trade,” Trump says, so we should tax China. “I would tax China on products coming in. Let me tell you what the tax should be… the tax should be 45 percent.” The solution to our trade problems with China, he thinks, is to build a tariff wall. Build a wall and make them pay.

Trump thinks that Mexico will pay for the Mexican wall, and he thinks that China will pay for a Chinese tariff wall. But he is wrong. The American people would pay for the wall with higher consumer prices and reduced American exports.

First, how would such a tariff increase impact American consumers? A 45 percent tariff on Chinese products would be an indirect tax on American consumers. On average, the United States imposes a 3.5 percent tariff on foreign products. Over 20 percent of all United States imports come from China, with a total value of over $500 billion. At 3.5 percent, the tariff on $500 billion worth of Chinese imports is $17.5 billion. At 45 percent, the tariff would be $225 billion. That’s an increase of over 1,186 percent. In other words, assuming Chinese imports continued at their current rate, Donald Trump’s proposed tariff wall with China would reflect an indirect tax on American consumers of over $200 billion. A tax increase of over $200 billion would be one of the largest in American history, greater than the combined tax increases imposed by Presidents Obama, Clinton, and Carter.

To be more concrete, as detailed here, the United States imports from China over $135 billion worth of electronic equipment, over $100 billion worth of machinery, over $30 billion worth of furniture, over $25 billion worth of toys, and over $18 billion worth of footwear. All of us routinely purchase Chinese products, and we each would face a dramatic price increase as the 45 percent tariff is passed on to consumers.

Second, how would the tariff increase impact American exporters? Trump’s tariff wall is undoubtedly illegal under the WTO rules. The rules were designed to make sure that countries keep their trade promises. Donald Trump’s proposal is a blatant breach of our promise to keep tariffs low. All of our tariff rates are “bound,” meaning we have committed by treaty not to increase beyond the bound rate. Every imported product has a bound tariff rate, and under GATT Article II, any tariff above that ceiling violates the WTO rules.

Trump’s proposed tariff wall would break United States’ promise to maintain its current tariff rates. China would have the right to bring an action before the WTO to challenge the 45 percent tariff increase. Just as the United States would undoubtedly win if China tried to do something similar to us, China would undoubtedly win if it challenged the Trump tariff wall. The WTO would demand that the United States keep its tariff promises, and authorize China to raise tariffs on United States’ products coming into China equal to the harm the United States caused to China.

In other words, if China suffers over $200 billion worth of harm from increased tariffs on Chinese products, the WTO would authorize China to increase tariffs on U.S. products by the same amount. Over 7 percent of all United States exports go to China, with total U.S. exports to China exceeding $120 billion.

So if China is hit with over $200 billion worth of tariff increases, China would be authorized to impose over $200 billion worth of tariff increases on $120 billion worth of American exports. Our major exports to China include soybeans ($15 billion), civilian aircraft ($8.4 billion), passenger vehicles ($5.2 billion), copper ($3 billion), corn ($1.3 billion), and coal ($1.2 billion). American workers with jobs in these industries would be severely injured by these WTO-authorized Chinese countermeasures. All those American auto workers, and corn and soybean farmers, and coal miners who support Trump would see their Chinese export market shrink. A tariff increase this dramatic could effectively close the Chinese market to American exports. And it would be completely proper for China to do this to compensate it for our illegal behavior.

In short, the great Chinese tariff wall that Donald Trump proposes to build would severely injure American consumers, making the price of all Chinese products dramatically higher. It also would severely injure American workers, as U.S. exports to the Chinese market would sharply contract. The economic harm that his tariff wall would have on the average American is shocking. Yet his supporters remain blissfully unaware that the United States would not win if it enters a trade war with China.

China Launches Op-Ed Rebuttal to Philippines’ Arbitration Case

by Julian Ku

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.

Whale Wars Truce is Over! Japan Will Resume Whaling Despite ICJ Ruling

by Julian Ku

Reports suggest that the Japanese government will resume whaling in the Southern Ocean near Antarctica early next year.  This news is causing lots of teeth-gnashing and anger in Australia and New Zealand, whose governments had brought and won a recent International Court of Justice decision finding Japan’s previous whaling program in violation of the International Whaling Convention.  The news also reveals (again) the limits of the ability of international dispute settlement system to change a country’s behavior.

Japan had previously said it would abide by the ICJ decision.  It did so by canceling whaling for one season and ending the program that the ICJ had said did not satisfy the “scientific research” exemption.  But Japan’s resumption of its whaling program signals that it believes its new program is consistent with the “scientific research” requirement.  I believe that it has the right to resume a new whaling program under the scientific research exemption without violating the ICJ’s judgment.

Of course, it might turn out that the new program is also in violation of the IWC’s “scientific research” provision, but the ICJ decision from 2014 does not require Japan to completely give up all whaling.  Indeed, although Australia sought a remedy from the ICJ requiring Japan to “refrain from authorizing or implementing any special permit whaling which is not for purposes of scientific research within the meaning of Article VIII..,” the ICJ simply noted that Japan was already under this obligation (see para. 246). Therefore, the ICJ explained: “It is to be expected that Japan will take account of the reasoning and conclusions contained in this Judgment as it evaluates the possibility of granting any future permits under Article VIII of the Convention.”  It looks like Japan has done so, and it has now granted more permits under Article VIII.

Australia’s Environment Minister has said that Japan cannot “unilaterally” decide that its new whaling program is in compliance with Article VIII of the IWC.  Actually, legally speaking, Japan can do just that.  The only legal remedy Australia is left with is another ICJ lawsuit.  But that is going to be a problem since as of October 6, 2015, Japan has withdrawn from the compulsory jurisdiction of the ICJ with respect to “any dispute arising out of, concerning, or relating to research on, or conservation, management or exploitation of, living resources of the sea.”  I think Australia might simply argue that Japan is in violation of the previous ICJ decision, but this will be a tricky argument on jurisdiction (and will take another five years to resolve).

So what’s the lesson here? It is risky to place too many of your eggs in the “international court” basket, even when you are suing a liberal, generally international law-abiding country like Japan (Philippines, take note!). It is too easy to either ignore or simply work around the obligations of international courts in these types of cases. And, importantly, while the cost to a country’s reputation may be severe when it violates or works around an international court order, reputation costs are seldom high enough to actually change a country’s behavior.  (For a very good summary of this whole saga, see Philip Clapham’s essay here).  Australia and New Zealand should probably think about some other remedies besides international court litigation.  And I guess the Whale Wars truce is over.

Guest Post: The South China Sea Arbitral Tribunal Finds that A White Horse Is Not a Horse–A Delimitation Exception Perspective

by Andrew Gou

[Andrew Gou is an Associate Professor at Jilin University. A translation of this post is also being circulated in Chinese via wechat, and that can be found here.]

Once upon a time, a man was traveling with a white horse. They were stopped at the entrance to town, for the town had a “no horses allowed” rule. The man argued that a white horse was not a horse, for white horse was a new concept defined by both the concepts of white and of horse, and thus different from the original concept of horse. However, the gatekeeper insisted that the white horse was still a horse and should consequently be excluded from the town. The white horse story highlights the importance of the identification of the subject matter to the application of rules. Even for such simple rule as “no horse allowed”, identifying the true subject matter is inevitable.

A key aspect of the ongoing South China Sea arbitration is to identify whether the submissions fall within the delimitation exception in the UNCLOS and China’s declaration under the exception: China argues yes, while the Philippines disagrees. On 29 October, the Arbitral Tribunal delivered its award on jurisdiction. Issues relating to delimitation exception are addressed briefly in paragraphs 155-157. The Tribunal states that it is “not convinced” by China; it considers that a dispute concerning maritime entitlement is distinct from a dispute concerning the delimitation; the Philippines has not requested the Tribunal to delimit, and the Tribunal will not effect the delimitation of any boundary. Then in paragraphs 397-412 titled “[t]he Tribunal’s conclusions on its jurisdiction”, the Tribunal concludes that 14 submissions of the Philippines do not concern maritime delimitation.

I respectfully disagree with the award. In particular, I disagree with the manners in which the Tribunal reaches its conclusions on the delimitation exception.

Basic understanding of the delimitation exception

Article 298.1(a) of the UNCLOS provides that a State may declare that it does not accept compulsory procedures with respect to “disputes concerning the interpretation or application of Articles 15, 74 and 83 relating to sea boundary delimitations”. In a recent article of mine (paras. 7-37), I tried to interpret the exception in accordance with Article 31 of the VCLT. Some basic findings are as follows:

First, delimitation is a process, and the term delimitation in the exception shall be understood as such. “The task of delimitation consists in resolving the overlapping claims” (Maritime Delimitation in the Black Sea, para. 77), which indicates that delimitation is a process of identifying, weighing and effecting competing claims, not only the final determination of the boundary line.

Second, according to their ordinary meaning, the good faith principle and relevant case law, the terms relating to and concerning in the language of the delimitation exception shall be interpreted non-restrictively. They carry the meaning of on and connected with, or having a bearing on.

Thus, the delimitation exception covers not only disputes on the determination of sea boundaries but also disputes having a bearing on the entire delimitation process. With an Article 298.1(a) declaration, the UNCLOS compulsory procedures shall not apply to those disputes.

The Philippines has wrongly specified the nature of the disputes

My article (paras. 73-100) also examines the Philippines’ submissions, and concludes that each of them has a bearing on delimitation and is excluded from arbitration by the declaration of China.

For instance, the Philippines asks the Tribunal to declare that China’s maritime claims based on its “nine dash line” are inconsistent with the UNCLOS and therefore invalid (award, paras. 4, 99). Apparently the Philippines is of the view that the line represents China’s maritime claims. If the view is correct, then disputes on the line are typically disputes on overlapping claims: they arose only when the Philippines raised maritime claims overlapping with China’s; they could be settled only in the process of delimitation. If the Philippines’ view is not correct, then it must be proved that there exists a dispute concerning the interpretation and application of the UNCLOS; otherwise, the Tribunal will have no jurisdiction. (more…)

Why China Will Ignore the UNCLOS Tribunal Judgment, and (Probably) Get Away With It

by Julian Ku

U.S. commentary has largely celebrated the UNCLOS Arbitral Tribunal’s award finding it has jurisdiction to consider the merits on many of the Philippines’ South China Sea related claims against China.   Perhaps the most positive note is found in Jill Goldenziel’s essay at the Diplomat entitled, “International Law Is the Real Threat to China in the South China Sea.”

But just by getting this far, the case already has important implications for the use of international courts to manage and resolve international conflicts. International law has become a weapon of the weak. Countries that cannot afford or have no chance of winning military conflicts have increasingly turned to courts to resolve territorial, economic, and human rights claims. Other countries are closely watching the Philippines as they consider similar options for asserting their own rights in the South China Sea and beyond. Vietnam, in particular, is considering filing a similar lawsuit. At the very least, the case may force China to engage in talks with its neighbors to resolve competing claims to the South China Sea. By doing so, China can save face and claim to resolve the disputes on its own terms. If law can bring China to its knees, cases involving the South China Sea will have ripple effects far beyond its shores.

For my own part, I am much more skeptical about the benefits of an arbitral award for the Philippines. As I argued last year, there is little reason to think China will suffer serious reputational consequences for defying the UNCLOS Arbitral Tribunal’s award on jurisdiction or on the merits. Why?

Because other cases involving “weak” nations using international courts against “strong” nations shows that “strong” nations suffer few consequences and rarely change behavior significantly. The most similar case to Philippines v. China is probably the 1986 ICJ judgment in Nicaragua v. United States. That case (also brought by the Philippines’ current lawyer Paul Reichler) resulted in the U.S. withdrawing from the compulsory jurisdiction of the ICJ, not showing up for the merits argument, and ignoring the ICJ’s final judgment on the merits in that case. While the U.S. suffered some negative votes in the General Assembly and had to veto several Security Council resolutions, it is hard to argue that the U.S. “complied” with the ICJ judgment as a result of the reputational costs it suffered by walking away. The U.S. never paid the compensation the ICJ held that it owed, and it stopped mining Nicaraguan harbors only years later.

Russia has also recently demonstrated the ability of a “Strong” state to ignore an international court ruling. After detaining a Dutch-flagged Greenpeace vessel and its crew in 2013, Russia faced a provisional measures proceeding in the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea. That tribunal ordered Russia to “promptly release” the vessel upon the posting of a bond and to release the crew as well.   Russia did not show up for the argument in court, and simply ignored the ITLOS order as well as a subsequent UNCLOS arbitral award.

Perhaps the Philippines will win some sort of leverage over China down the road by using a favorable award as a bargaining chip with China. But in the short-term, the Philippines has enraged China and has also led China to denounce (for the first time) the UNCLOS arbitral tribunal itself. It would not be impossible to imagine China announcing a withdrawal from UNCLOS (just to avoid the dispute settlement provisions) and simply adhering to UNCLOS as customary international law. That result will not be great for China, but I have a hard time seeing how it helps the Philippines either.

So How Is China Taking Its Loss at the UNCLOS Arbitral Tribunal? Not Well.

by Julian Ku

I have been curious to see how China would respond to yesterday’s UNCLOS Annex VII Arbitral Tribunal’s ruling finding it has jurisdiction to hear the Philippines South China Sea related claims.  Well, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs was ready with this blistering response:

Q: The Arbitral Tribunal established at the request of the Republic of the Philippines rendered the award on jurisdiction and admissibility of the South China Sea arbitration. What is China’s comment on that?

A: The Chinese government will not accept nor participate in the South China Sea arbitration unilaterally initiated by the Philippines. The Chinese Foreign Ministry has immediately released a statement to elaborate on China’s solemn position. The award is null and void, and has no binding effect on China. I would like to highlight three points.

First, China has indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea Islands and the adjacent waters. As a sovereign state and a State Party to the UNCLOS, China is entitled to choose the means and procedures of dispute settlement of its own will. China has all along been committed to resolving disputes with its neighbors over territory and maritime jurisdiction through negotiations and consultations. China and the Philippines have repeatedly reaffirmed in bilateral documents since the 1990s and the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) in 2002 that they shall resolve relevant disputes through negotiations and consultations.

Second, disregarding that the essence of this arbitration case is territorial sovereignty and maritime delimitation and related matters, maliciously evading the declaration on optional exceptions made by China in 2006 under Article 298 of the UNCLOS, and negating the consensus between China and the Philippines on resolving relevant disputes through negotiations and consultations, the Philippines and the Arbitral Tribunal have abused relevant procedures, misrepresented the law and obstinately forced ahead with the arbitration, and as a result, have severely violated the legitimate rights that China enjoys as a State Party to the UNCLOS, completely deviated from the purposes and objectives of the UNCLOS, and eroded the integrity and authority of the UNCLOS.

Third, as a State Party to the UNCLOS, China firmly opposes the acts of abusing the compulsory procedures for dispute settlement under the UNCLOS, and calls upon all parties concerned to work together to safeguard the integrity and authority of the UNCLOS. China urges the Philippines to honor its own commitments, respect China’s rights under international law, change its course and return to the right track of resolving relevant disputes in the South China Sea through negotiations and consultations. That is the correct path with bright prospects.

The full MFA statement is here, and includes a swipe at the Philippines for using the “cloak of law as a political provocation.”  It is worth noting that China is still aiming most of its rhetorical fire at the Philippines, but it has also now directly criticized the Arbitral Tribunal for “abus[ing] relevant procedures [and] misrepresent[ing] the law….”  I also detect a slightly larger emphasis in China’s complaint about the “unilateral” nature of this arbitration.

I am also impressed by China’s willingness to just ignore the clear provisions of Article 288(4) of UNCLOS, and simply declare that the Tribunal’s ruling is “null and void” and has “no binding legal effect.”  At some point, someone in China is going to have to gin up a legal argument to get past UNCLOS’ clear language giving the Tribunal the power to determine questions of jurisdiction.  But for now, it looks like China is going to stick to its guns.

China’s Weak Legal Basis for Criticizing the US Navy’s Freedom of Navigation Operations in the South China Sea

by Julian Ku

The US Navy executed a much anticipated “freedom of navigation operation” (FONOP) today within 12 nautical miles of Subi reef, the site of one of China’s artificial islands in the South China Sea.   Predictably, China has reacted sharply to this operation by sending two Chinese destroyers to shadow the U.S. ship and planes, summoning the U.S. ambassador, and issuing angry public statements (see below).  Although it is not the main focus of their complaints, the Chinese have repeatedly described the U.S. operation as “illegal” thus highlighting the legal conflict underlying this naval showdown.

The most detailed official reaction was presented by China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Lu Kang.

The USS Lassen illegally entered waters near relevant islands and reefs of China’s Nansha Islands without the permission of the Chinese government on October 27. Relevant authorities of the Chinese side monitored, followed and warned the US vessel. Relevant actions by the US naval vessel threatened China’s sovereignty and security interests, put the personnel and facilities on the islands and reefs at risk and endangered regional peace and stability. The Chinese side hereby expresses strong dissatisfaction and opposition.

It is unclear exactly how the U.S. ship put personnel on the islands and reefs at risk, but in any event, the spokesperson went on to assure the world that China has, and always will, respect the freedom of navigation consistent with international law.

China’s Deputy Foreign Minister Zhang Yesui echoed these remarks, although this statement focused more on China’s “indisputable sovereignty” than on the legality of the U.S. actions.  China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi simply warned the U.S. against “stirring up trouble.” Perhaps more seriously, China’s Defense Ministry spokesperson called the U.S. action an “abuse” of the principle of “freedom of navigation under international law” that would cause “harm” to bilateral trust and relations.

As I suggested in a previous post, the US and China might have chosen to downplay this incident by treating the U.S. naval visit as an “innocent passage” through China’s territorial seas.  But China believes even innocent passage requires its permission, and the U.S. Navy made sure that its destroyer was accompanied by naval surveillance aircraft. The inclusion of the aircraft makes it clear that the U.S. is not trying to claim an “innocent passage.” Rather, the U.S. is stating (through its actions) that it does not believe Subi reef (where the Chinese have added an artificial island) is a rock or island generating a territorial sea.  Therefore, US naval vessels should be free to conduct any activity they wish in this area.

It is interesting that at least one Chinese media outlet is claiming that there is no real conflict over international law between the two sides.  In this portrayal, China’s actions in building artificial islands is “completely legal” and the U.S. is just trying to flaunt its power by “harassing” China.  China’s legal position appears to be that it is building artificial islands on reefs that are entitled to a 12 nautical mile territorial sea.  Or, as another commentator sympathetic to China’s position has argued, because China claims every land feature in the South China Sea, even if the relevant reef is not entitled to a territorial sea, other nearby land features (also claimed by China) probably generate such rights.

In my view, the U.S. has a much stronger legal position.  Indeed, China is barely offering any serious legal defense other than repeating the words “indisputable sovereignty” repeatedly.  China is not doing itself any favors by calling US actions illegal, but failing to offer any specific criticism or explanation of its own legal position.

On the other hand, perhaps it is China’s interest to downplay the legal aspects of this dispute, and to feed the narrative that the U.S. is “provoking” a confrontation.  To some degree,this is working, as the global and Chinese media are feeding the narrative about a US-China naval showdown and ignoring the niceties of the U.S. legal position.  Indeed, if China raises the stakes by threatening some military response (as it is getting close to doing), it will be hard to convince the world (or the U.S. public) that such a conflict is worthwhile in order to vindicate an abstract legal principle like “freedom of navigation.”

Why “Following International Law” Won’t Necessary Solve the South China Sea Conflict Over Freedom of Navigation

by Julian Ku

As Chris notes below, it seems like there will be a showdown soon between the U.S. and China in the South China Sea over the right of freedom of navigation set out in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and customary international law. It is tempting to see this as a problem of one side ignoring international law, and the other trying to uphold it.  But the U.S. and China have a fundamentally different understanding of what international law requires and allows under the principle of “freedom of navigation”. So getting all sides  to “follow” international law is not necessarily going to solve the dispute here.

The U.S. definition of freedom of navigation means all ships (including warships) are allowed to traverse both the 200 nm exclusive economic zones (EEZ) and the 12 nm territorial seas without obtaining the permission of the coastal state.  In the 200 nm EEZ, the U.S. believes that military ships may conduct any activity, including surveillance of the coastal state (e.g. “spying”).  Within 12 nm, the U.S. believes military ships must abide by the rules of “innocent passage” which precludes any overt military-related activity.

The Chinese definition of freedom of navigation is quite different.  Essentially, the Chinese argue that military ships should have to follow rules of innocent passage even in the 200 nm EEZ, and that military ships must get permission to enter the 12 nm territorial sea, even if those ships are planning to make an innocent passage.

Why does this difference in the definition of freedom of navigation matter?  Because it allows both sides to say that they are abiding by the rules for freedom of navigation set forth in UNCLOS, while disagreeing dramatically on what each side is allowed to do.  From the U.S. perspective, its navy should be allowed to enter the 12 nm territorial seas around China’s “islands” as long as they abide by the rules of innocent passage.  But the Chinese will say that freedom of navigation doesn’t permit this activity.

Most states agree with the U.S. definition of freedom of navigation.  But some states (including neighboring South China Sea coastal states) do agree with the Chinese view on the EEZ (like Malaysia) and others follow the Chinese view on the 12 nm territorial sea (like Vietnam). So although I think the U.S. reading of UNCLOS is the correct one, the Chinese are not alone in their interpretation.  And as this editorial from China’s leading state-run English language paper indicates, the Chinese are going to emphasize this difference in legal interpretations in their response.

Of all foreign military activities in the special economic zones (especially those of China and the U.S.), the innocent passage of warships through territorial seas, have fueled the majority of clashes and disagreements, as the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea fails to provide explicit regulations on such activities.

To be sure, the Chinese may be shifting their own views since the Chinese Navy recently entered U.S. territorial seas on an “innocent passage”. But the official Chinese position still would require the U.S. to get permission before entering its 12 nm territorial seas.

One more note:  because several of China’s “artificial islands” are not islands but underwater features like shoals or reefs, the U.S. position ought to be that there is no “innocent passage” requirement for its naval ships even after entering within 12 nm miles.  Because China’s artificial island do not generate a 12 nm territorial sea, the U.S. should make clear it is NOT following the rules of innocent passage.

In any event, although international law is important, it cannot by itself resolve this festering US-China dispute until both sides agree on what international law actually requires.