Archive of posts for category
Law of the Sea

ICC Communication About Australia’s Mistreatment of Refugees

by Kevin Jon Heller

As has been widely reported, 17 international-law scholars — including yours truly — recently submitted a 105-page communication to the Office of the Prosecutor alleging that Australia’s treatment of refugees involves the commission of multiple crimes against humanity, including imprisonment, torture, deportation, and persecution. The communication is a tremendous piece of work, prepared in large part by the Global Legal Action Network (GLAN) and Stanford Law School’s International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic.

Peter Dutton, Australia’s Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, has described our efforts as a “wacky cause.” Nothing could be further from the truth. The communication is serious, sober, analytic, and comprehensive. I think it establishes far more than a “reasonable basis” to believe that Australian government officials and officials of the corporations that run the prison camps on Manus Island and Nauru have committed crimes against humanity. Here is (most of) the executive summary…

Event: Australia, Refugees, and International Criminal Law (February 13)

by Kevin Jon Heller

I want to call readers’ attention to what should be — despite my participation — a fantastic event at City Law School the week after next. Here is the info:

City, University of London: The Refugee Crisis and International Criminal Law: Are Australian Agents and Corporate Actors Committing Crimes Against Humanity?

City Law School invites you to a panel discussion of international criminal law aspects of the refugee crisis, with a focus on the Australian detention facilities. The discussion will follow the announcement and launch of a new major initiative by the Stanford International Human Rights Clinic and the Global Legal Action Network (GLAN).

Refugees and asylum seekers are currently under attack in many developed countries, including in European states, the US, and Australia. International criminal law has developed around the need for international institutions to intervene on behalf of the most vulnerable populations, when states are unwilling or unable to do so. Can international criminal prosecution help counter the current encroachment upon refugee rights? Currently, the most flagrant examples of such encroachment are Australian practices, which have also served as a model for migration restrictionists around the world. Our focus will be on the treatment of refugees in Nauru and Manus Island by Australian officials and agents, including corporate actors. At issue, however, are not only legal questions. As important are contemporary political conditions, in which the international criminal court is under sustained critique for a seeming bias against African leaders; and in which Western governments and populist movements are proposing new policies that violate refugee rights. Does the concept of Crimes against Humanity accurately capture the conditions of detention and practices of mass deportations? And, if there are international crimes committed, are these grave enough for the International Criminal Court to investigate? Can and should International Criminal Law shift its focus from instances of spectacular or radical evil to the normalised and ‘banal’ violence waged by Western states as a consequence of the structures of global inequality?

Speakers: Ms Diala Shamas, Supervising Attorney and Lecturer, Stanford Law School International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic; Dr Cathryn Costello, Andrew W. Mellon Associate Professor in International Human Rights and Refugee Law, fellow of St Antony’s College, University of Oxford; Professor Kevin Jon Heller, Professor of Criminal Law, SOAS, University of London; Dr Ioannis KalpouzosLecturer in Law, City Law School, City, University of London; Legal Action Committee, Global Legal Action Network; Dr Itamar Mann, Senior Lecturer in Law, University of Haifa; Legal Action Committee, Global Legal Action Network; Ms Anna Shea, Researcher and Legal Advisor, Refugee and Migrant Rights, Amnesty International.

The event takes place on Monday 13 February 2017 at 18:00 at City, University of London, College Building, St John Street, EC1V 4PB – Room AG21. The event will be followed by a wine reception. Attendance is free. You may sign up here.

Hope to see some OJ readers there!

Symposium on Asia and International Law

by Chris Borgen

The forthcoming issue of the European Journal of International Law will feature an article by Professor Simon Chesterman, the Dean of the National University of Singapore’s Faculty of Law, entitled Asia’s Ambivalence About International Law and Institutions: Past, Present and Futures. This week, Opinio Juris and EJILTalk will hold a joint symposium on the two blogs on Professor Chesterman’s article.

The article’s abstract explains:

Asian states are the least likely of any regional grouping to be party to most international obligations or to have representation reflecting their number and size in international organizations. That is despite the fact that Asian states have arguably benefited most from the security and economic dividends provided by international law and institutions. This article explores the reasons for Asia’s under-participation and under-representation. The first part traces the history of Asia’s engagement with international law. The second part assesses Asia’s current engagement with international law and institutions, examining whether its under-participation and under-representation is in fact significant and how it might be explained. The third part considers possible future developments based on three different scenarios, referred to here as status quo, divergence and convergence. Convergence is held to be the most likely future, indicating adaptation on the part of Asian states as well as on the part of the international legal order.

The symposium will begin on Monday with an opening post by Professor Chesterman, followed by posts on Opinio Juris by Professor Tony Anghie of the National University of Singapore and on EJILTalk by Professor Eyal Benvenisti of Cambridge University.  On Tuesday, Opinio Juris will have commentary by Professor B.S. Chimni of Jawaharlal Nehru University and EJILTalk will have a piece by Professor Robert McCorquodale of the University of Nottingham and the Director of the British Institute of International and Comparative Law.   Wednesday will have observations and reactions on Opinio Juris by Judge Xue Hanqin  of the International Court of Justice and on EJILTalk by Judge Paik Jin-Hyun of the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea. Finally, there will be a closing post pn both blogs by Professor Chesterman on Thursday.

We hope you will join us on both blogs for the discussion.

Ukraine’s UNCLOS Arbitration Claim Against Russia May Depend Upon Philippines-China Precedent

by Julian Ku

After months (or even years) of threats, Ukraine finally filed an arbitration claim against Russia under Annex VII of the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea.  According to this statement from the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign of Affairs, the claim will focus on Russia’s actions in the maritime zones bordering Crimea.

Since the Russian Federation’s illegal acts of aggression in Crimea, Russia has usurped and interfered with Ukraine’s maritime rights in these zones.  Ukraine seeks to end the Russian Federation’s violations of UNCLOS and vindicate Ukraine’s rights in the Black Sea, Sea of Azov, and Kerch Strait, including Ukraine’s rights to the natural resources offshore Crimea which belong to the Ukrainian people.

I discussed Ukraine’s claim back in February here, as well as Russia’s likely response.  I can’t find a copy of the Ukrainian statement of claim online, but the MFA description sounds like it will be pretty similar to the approach pioneered by the Philippines in its claim against China.  Ukraine will seek to avoid Russia’s Article 298 declaration excluding jurisdiction relating to sea boundary delimitations by not asking the tribunal to rule on sea boundaries. Ukraine will not seek to have the arbitral tribunal declare that the annexation of Crimea is illegal. Rather, the focus will be on specific actions Russia has taken in the Crimea maritime zones, which Ukraine is going to assume is part of Ukraine.

It will be interesting to see if Russia responds at all to this arbitration, or whether they follow China’s example and simply boycott the arbitration process completely.  I am not sure Russia’s jurisdictional defense is as strong as China’s (which lost anyway), so I am betting Russia simply declares it will not even show up, while loudly declaiming the legality of their actions.  Stay tuned.

 

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.

President Obama Calls out the Senate on Treaties

by Duncan Hollis

Earlier today, President Obama took time out during his commencement address at the Air Force Academy to make a pointed plea for the value of treaty-making.  Here’s the relevant excerpt from his remarks:

By the way, one of the most effective ways to lead and work with others is through treaties that advance our interests.  Lately, there’s been a mindset in Congress that just about any international treaty is somehow a violation of American sovereignty, and so the Senate almost never approves treaties anymore.  They voted down a treaty to protect disabled Americans, including our veterans, while Senator and World War II veteran Bob Dole was sitting right there in the Senate chambers in a wheelchair.

We don’t always realize it, but treaties help make a lot of things in our lives possible that we take for granted — from international phone calls to mail.  Those are good things.  Those are not a threat to our sovereignty.  I think we can all agree on that.

But also from NATO to treaties controlling nuclear weapons, treaties help keep us safe.  So if we’re truly concerned about China’s actions in the South China Sea, for example, the Senate should help strengthen our case by approving the Law of the Sea Convention — as our military leaders have urged.  And by the way, these treaties are not a new thing.  The power to make treaties is written into our Constitution.  Our Founding Fathers ratified lots of treaties.  So it’s time for the Senate to do its job and help us advance American leadership, rather than undermine it.  (Applause.)

Three paragraphs is not much to fully articulate U.S. interests in treaty-making (let alone give a balanced overview of the arguments over UNCLOS).  Thus, I think the more noteworthy thing here is the fact that the remarks are coming from the President himself.  It’s one thing to call out the Senate on a specific treaty like the Disabilities Convention, but this slap is more systemic. President Obama has not had a good record when it comes to making treaties through the Article II Advice and Consent process.  With the exception of the new START treaty, the Senate has refused to act on most treaties, including certain types of treaties (e.g., tax treaties, fish treaties) that in prior Administrations were entirely uncontroversial.  Thus, we might see this speech as a late shift in strategy, where the White House is moving off treaty-specific pro’s and con’s to reconstruct this issue in constitutional terms.  I’m not too sanguine that the move will be any more successful at getting votes on pending treaties, but the Senate’s response (if any) will bear watching.

What do others think?  Is there anything I’m missing here?

[UPDATE: An astute reader points out that I was incorrect to cite fish treaties as an example of Senate hostility to treaty-making.  In fact, all four treaties that have received Senate advice and consent since 2012 involved fish; in other words, fish treaties are the only treaties that have gotten through in the last four years.  Tax treaties and treaties on scientific cooperation and conservation, which in the past were, like fish treaties, non-controversial, are better examples of the ongoing hostility to treaty-making]

Weaponized Archaeology and Sovereignty Disputes

by Chris Borgen

Underwater archaeologist Peter B. Campbell has a very interesting opinion piece in the New York Times about how archaeological claims are being used as political weapons in sovereignty disputes. He explains:

For decades, global powers have been engaged in a race to exploit lucrative marine resources, from oil to fisheries to control of strategic waterways. But they have faced a challenge: How can a country claim new territory despite the restrictions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea? It turns out that “historical ties” to resource-rich regions can conveniently help to contravene international law.

At issue is how archaeological research is being injected into political rhetoric on issues such as claims of sovereignty in the Arctic, in the South China Sea, and over Crimea.  Campbell writes:

China’s deputy minister of culture, Li Xiaojie, put it bluntly: “Marine archaeology is an exercise that demonstrates national sovereignty.”

Russia has followed suit. In 2011, when he was prime minister, Vladimir V. Putin made headlines by retrieving two ancient ceramic jars from a shipwreck at Phanagoria, the ancient Greek city that is 10 miles from Crimea. The media cast it as a publicity stunt, but alarm bells sounded within the archaeological community. Mr. Putin’s political allies had invested $3.5 billion in research at Phanagoria, a submerged harbor with Roman-era shipwrecks. And while Phanagoria was the site of Greek colonies, Russian nationalists have adopted its ancient kings as proto-Russians.

For now, these archaeological findings are being used more as ostensible support of political rhetoric rather than as evidence, in the technical legal sense, of title.  Claims of sovereignty are most clearly based on specific treaties, such as boundary delimitation treaties, or broader treaties that set-forth rules for resolving disputes, such as the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

This does not deny that historical state practice can be a component in resolving a dispute. But there are standards for assessing such historical examples. As the Permanent Court of International Justice wrote in the Eastern Greenland case:

a claim to sovereignty based not upon some particular act or title such as a treaty of cession but merely upon continued display of authority, involves two elements each of which must be shown to exist: the intention and will to act as sovereign, and some actual exercise or display of such authority.

Another circumstance which must be taken into account by any tribunal which has to adjudicate upon a claim to sovereignty over a particular territory, is the extent to which the sovereignty is also claimed by some other Power.

The ICJ quoted this language at paragraph 134 in its Pulau Ligitan and Pulau Sipadan judgment. In the case of maritime sovereignty claims, the goal would be to turn old shipwrecks into evidence of a continued display of authority, also known as effectivite. Anneliese Guess wrote that Canada’s then-Minister of the Environment said in 2008 that, in regards to the search for shipwrecks in the Northwest Passage:

 We certainly think by establishing a long-standing presence in the Arctic that can enhance issues of sovereignty … Look at the strait (the Northwest Passage) not far from where this ship is….We think every bit of weight we can put behind our case for sovereignty is important. Adding history to that equation can only enhance that case.

While historic state practice can be important, the ICJ’s discussion in Pulau Ligitan is a good example of how difficult it can to make such a claim of effectivite. In that case, the ICJ wrote that the facts must “leave no doubt as to their specific reference to the islands in dispute as such.” (para. 136) In Pulau Ligitan, the ICJ was unmoved by many of the examples of naval activities as proof of claims of sovereignty. How much harder still, with archaeological shipwrecks from a century ago, let alone from Roman times.

Modern international law, with its focus on treaty obligations and effective dates (that draw a bright line making some historical facts less important than others) is not likely to accord much weight to  shipwrecks such as those mentioned by Campbell. (And probably no weight to some of them.) Nonetheless, politicians spin and deploy these archaeological finds in their wars of words. But in the end, as Campbell reminds us,

…archaeology rarely fits simple narratives. In fact, archaeology often demonstrates our shared human past.

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.

Breaking: UNCLOS Tribunal Rules Against China, Unanimously Finds It Has Jurisdiction Over Philippines South China Sea Claims

by Julian Ku

It’s been a rough week for China’s South China Seas policy. In addition to facing a US Freedom of Navigation operation near one of its artificial islands, the arbitration tribunal formed under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea has decided that it has jurisdiction to proceed to the merits on the Philippines’ legal challenge to certain Chinese activities in the South China Sea.

I will blog more about this later, but for now it is worth noting that the tribunal unanimously ruled that it can proceed to the merits on seven out of 15 of the Philippines’ claims, and that it reserves the question of jurisdiction on seven other claims as being so interwoven with the merits that it cannot be resolved without first considering the merits.

I will note that the tribunal reserved the question of jurisdiction over the Philippines’ biggest and most flashy claim: the argument that China’s Nine Dash Line “historic rights” claim is inconsistent with UNCLOS. It held that:

The Philippines’ Submission No. 1 does, however, require the Tribunal to consider the effect of any historic rights claimed by China to maritime entitlements in the South China Sea and the interaction of such rights with the provisions of the Convention. This is a dispute concerning the interpretation and application of the Convention. The Tribunal’s jurisdiction to consider this question, however, would be dependent on the nature of any such historic rights and whether they are covered by the exclusion from jurisdiction over “historic bays or titles” in Article 298. The nature and validity of any historic rights claimed by China is a merits determination. The possible jurisdictional objections with respect to the dispute underlying Submission No. 1 therefore do not possess an exclusively preliminary character. Accordingly, the Tribunal reserves a decision on its jurisdiction with respect to the Philippines’ Submission No. 1 for consideration in conjunction with the merits of the Philippines’ claims.

On the other hand, the Tribunal did find that the question of whether the Scarborough Shoal is a “rock” or an “island” is clearly within the jurisdiction of the Tribunal, irrespective of the merits. It did so because it held that there are no overlapping sovereignty or sea boundary claims that might impact the determination.

Overall, it should never be surprising when an arbitral tribunal finds that it has jurisdiction to hear a case. The Tribunal did throw China a bone by noting that it is still possible that seven of the Philippines’ claims (including the Nine Dash Line challenge) could be dismissed for lack of jurisdiction at the merits stage.

But by reserving the question of jurisdiction, and guaranteeing it will rule on the merits for several other claims, the Tribunal shoves the ball back onto China’s court.  Will China continue to claim it is not bound by the Tribunal for lack of jurisdiction, when the Tribunal has now found it has jurisdiction?  China would more clearly be in violation of UNCLOS now than it was before, because UNCLOS Article 288(4) makes it clear that “[i]n the event of a dispute as to whether a court or tribunal has jurisdiction, the matter shall be settled by decision of that court or tribunal.”  My guess is China will pretend that Article 288 doesn’t exist and continue to refuse to participate.  The interesting question is whether China will pay any serious price (in reputational terms) if it does so.

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.

Freedom of Navigation Operations and the South China Sea

by Chris Borgen

The BBC charts the latest back-and-forth between China, the U.S. over the Spratly Islands and, especially, navigation in the South China Sea. Much of the discussion of this issue has focused on the increased pace of China construction and land reclamation on series of islands and reefs, changing the “facts on the ground” to bolster its territorial and maritime claims. Other countries have also built on various islands and reefs, positioning for their own claims. But the scope of China’s activities had brought the issue back to the forefront.

The current flurry has been about the U.S.’s reaction and, in particular, whether the U.S. will use of “freedom of navigation” (FON) operations (previously discussed by Julian, here) in the midst of all this activity in the Spratlys.

According to the BBC, Hua Chunying, a spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry stated:

“We will never allow any country to violate China’s territorial waters and airspace in the Spratly Islands, in the name of protecting freedom of navigation and overflight.”

On Tuesday, US Defence Secretary Ash Carter expressed “strong concerns” over island-building, and defended Washington’s plans.

“Make no mistake, the United States will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows, as we do around the world, and the South China Sea will not be an exception,” he said at a news conference with the Australian foreign and defence ministers.

“We will do that in the time and places of our choosing,” he added, according to Reuters news agency.

According to the U.S. Department of State, the U.S. has undertaken such freedom of navigation (FON) operations since 1983 to “exercise and assert its navigation and overflight rights and freedoms on a worldwide basis in a manner that is consistent with the balance of interests reflected in the Law of the Sea (LOS) Convention.” This is a topic where one can see the U.S. refer explicitly and repeatedly to international law:

The FON Program since 1979 has highlighted the navigation provisions of the LOS Convention to further the recognition of the vital national need to protect maritime rights throughout the world. The FON Program operates on a triple track, involving not only diplomatic representations and operational assertions by U.S. military units, but also bilateral and multilateral consultations with other governments in an effort to promote maritime stability and consistency with international law, stressing the need for and obligation of all States to adhere to the customary international law rules and practices reflected in the LOS Convention.

Emphases added.

A year-by-year summary of Freedom of Navigation operations by the U.S. can be found on the U.S. Department of Defense website, here.

However, the BBC notes that:

The US might have mounted sea patrols in this area, but not for several years, our analyst says – and not since China began its massive building programme in the South China Sea.

A US military plane that flew near one of the islands in May was warned off – eight times.

The US now has to decide whether to send in its ships and risk confrontation, or back down and look weak, our analyst says.

How the situation evolves from here will depend in part on the reactions of other states that border the South China Sea or use its sea lanes.  Stay tuned…