The conflict between China and Vietnam over a Chinese oil rig has (thankfully) calmed down a little bit, with fewer reports of rammings and water cannon fights in the South China Sea. But the war of press release and government-sponsored editorials has heated up and all of them are wielding international law as a weapon of authority and legitimacy.
Vietnam’s government has been flooding the Internet with various articles, interviews, and statements accusing China of violating international law by moving an oil rig into waters Vietnam claims as its own. See here, here, and here. In general, these are pretty effective, although I do think Vietnamese scholars lose a bit of credibility when they insist that China has “no legal grounds” for its actions. Meanwhile, the Philippines has continued its steady drumbeat of legal articles, including this fascinating essay by Philippines Supreme Court Judge Antonio Carpio.
China has struck back with several English-language articles of its own from Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency. These have been much less effective or credible, and not just because China has a weaker (although not indefensible) legal position. Here’s a doozy from the opening paragraph of a recent Xinhua offering:
China’s repeated rejection of Manila’ s plea for arbitration in the dispute in the South China Sea is by no means defiance of the tribunal in The Hague. On the contrary, it shows China’s respect for international law.
I understand what they are trying to say, but this argument just sounds bad. China has no legal obligation to participate in the UNCLOS arbitration, but its non-participation is hardly a sign of respect for international law when that arbitral tribunal has the power to determine its own jurisdiction.
This Xinhua essay on the Vietnam dispute is much better. Most importantly, it relies on China’s territorial claim to the Xisha (Paracel) Islands as the basis for China’s right to place the oil rig. It does not claim any rights here flow from the so-called “Nine Dash Line” that often gets all the press and is undoubtedly the weakest part of their legal argument. It focuses on the threats to the safety of Chinese sailors and workers, and Vietnam’s legal obligations under the 1988 Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts against the Safety of Maritime Navigation.
Of course, international law is not China’s strongest suit here. But it is interesting to see how China is using international law to support its actions. Moreover, all China has to do is muddy the waters by establishing that international law does not plainly compel any particular outcome (as Vietnam and the Philippines seem to argue). If the international legal arguments are fought to a draw, China is in a good position to win the overall game.