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.