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Law of the Sea

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…

Touchy, Touchy. What China’s Sensitivity About the Philippines Arbitration Reveals About the Strength of Its Legal Position

by Julian Ku

While I was on (my completely undeserved) vacation in California recently, I noticed more evidence that China’s government is becoming hyper-sensitive about criticism of its non-participation in the Philippines-China arbitration at the Hague.

First, a top U.S. government official stated at a conference on July 21 that, among other things, “…[W]hen they became parties to the Convention, both the Philippines and China agreed to its compulsory dispute settlement regime. Under this regime, the decision of the arbitral tribunal is legally binding on the parties to the dispute. It’s a treaty. In keeping with the rule of law, both the Philippines and China are obligated to abide by whatever decision may be rendered in the case, whether they like it or not. ”

On July 17, the New York Times published a rather bland staff editorial on the China-Philippines arbitration gently chiding China for failing to participate in that arbitral process.  Noting that China was likely to ignore the arbitration’s outcome, the NYT opined: “[China] should participate in the tribunal process if China wants to be recognized as a leader in a world that values the resolution of disputes within a legal framework.”

Both statements are pretty gentle, in my view, and Russel’s point about China’s obligation to abide by the arbitral tribunal’s rulings on jurisdiction is quite correct as a matter of law.  But it is China’s rather vociferous response that is more striking.

First, the Chinese Foreign Ministry sharply rejected Russel’s remarks.  Most curiously, it charged that the U.S. was, by “[a]ttempting to push forward the arbitration unilaterally initiated by the Philippines, [acting] like an ‘arbitrator outside the tribunal’, designating the direction for the arbitral tribunal established at the request of the Philippines.”  The spokesperson went on to say “This is inconsistent with the position the US side claims to uphold on issues concerning the South China Sea disputes.”

Second, the Chinese Ambassador to the U.S. wrote a letter to the editor of the NYT, calling its editorial “unfair.”  It also concluded that  “we do not believe that the arbitration court has jurisdiction, and as a member of United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, China is entitled to exclude any third-party compulsory settlement.”

I am sympathetic to China’s position that compulsory arbitration is not the way to go here, but as a legal matter, their views are hard to understand.  The UNCLOS does NOT give China the right to exclude any “third-party compulsory settlement.”  It does the opposite, and allows very limited exceptions to compulsory dispute resolution which may or may not apply here.  Furthermore, as numerous commentators have explained but which China continues to ignore, Article 288 of UNCLOS plainly gives the UNCLOS arbitral tribunal the final say on jurisdiction.  Russel was only repeating what is in the plain text of the treaty (UNCLOS) that China signed and ratified.

China’s sharply worded but legally incoherent responses are a sign that it is more nervous about the Philippines arbitration than it has let on in the past. China should just stop complaining about the arbitration and move on. It should have enough diplomatic, military, and political leverage to get past this.  It will get nowhere with its legal arguments.

The Pre-Trial Chamber’s Dangerous Comoros Review Decision

by Kevin Jon Heller

In late 2014, the Office of the Prosecutor rejected a request by Comoros to open a formal investigation into Israel’s attack on the Mavi Marmara. To my great surprise, the Pre-Trial Chamber (Judge Kovacs dissenting) has now ordered the OTP to reconsider its decision. The order does not require the OTP to open a formal investigation, because the declination was based on gravity, not on the interests of justice — a critical distinction under Art. 53 of the Rome Statute, as I explain here. But the PTC’s decision leaves little doubt that it expects the OTP to open one. Moreover, the PTC’s decision appears designed to push the OTP to decline to formally investigate a second time (assuming it doesn’t change its mind about the Comoros situation) on the basis of the interests of justice, which would then give the PTC the right to demand the OTP investigate.

To put it simply, this is a deeply problematic and extremely dangerous decision — nothing less than a frontal assault on the OTP’s prosecutorial discretion, despite the PTC’s claims to the contrary. I will explain why in this (very long) post.

At the outset, it is important to emphasise that we are dealing here with situational gravity, not case gravity. In other words, the question is not whether the OTP should have opened a case against specific members of the IDF who were responsible for crimes on the Mavi Marmara, but whether the OTP should have opened a situation into the Comoros situation as a whole. The Rome Statute is notoriously vague about the difference between situational gravity and case gravity, even though it formally adopts the distinction in Art. 53. But it is a critical distinction, because the OTP obviously cannot assess the gravity of an entire situation in the same way that it assesses the gravity of a specific crime within a situation.

The PTC disagrees with nearly every aspect of the OTP’s gravity analysis. It begins by rejecting the OTP’s insistence (in ¶ 62 of its response to Comoro’s request for review) that the gravity of the Comoros situation is limited by the fact that there is no “reasonable basis to believe that ‘senior IDF commanders and Israeli leaders’ were responsible as perpetrators or planners of the apparent war crimes’.” Here is how the PTC responds to that claim:

23. The Chamber is of the view that the Prosecutor erred in the Decision Not to Investigate by failing to consider whether the persons likely to be the object of the investigation into the situation would include those who bear the greatest responsibility for the identified crimes. Contrary to the Prosecutor’s argument at paragraph 62 of her Response, the conclusion in the Decision Not to Investigate that there was not a reasonable basis to believe that “senior IDF commanders and Israeli leaders” were responsible as perpetrators or planners of the identified crimes does not answer the question at issue, which relates to the Prosecutor’s ability to investigate and prosecute those being the most responsible for the crimes under consideration and not as such to the seniority or hierarchical position of those who may be responsible for such crimes.

These are fundamentally irreconcilable conceptions of “potential perpetrator” gravity. The OTP is taking the traditional ICTY/ICTR approach, asking whether the Israeli perpetrators of the crimes on the Mavi Marmara are militarily or politically important enough to justify the time and expense of a formal investigation. The PTC, by contrast, does not care about the relative importance of the perpetrators; it simply wants to know whether the OTP can prosecute the individuals who are most responsible for committing the crimes in question.

To see the difference between the two approaches — and to see why the OTP’s approach is far better — consider a hypothetical situation involving only one crime: a group of the lowest-ranking soldiers from State X executes, against the stated wishes of their commanders, 10 civilians from State Y. The OTP would conclude that the “potential perpetrator” gravity factor militates against opening a formal investigation in State Y, because the crime in question, though terrible, did not involve militarily important perpetrators. The PTC, by contrast, would reach precisely the opposite conclusion concerning gravity, deeming the soldiers “most responsible” for the crime by virtue of the fact that they acted against orders. After all, no one else was responsible for the decision to execute the civilians.

The PTC’s approach to “potential perpetrator” gravity is simply bizarre….

Dear World Media: The U.S. is NOT Challenging China’s Territorial Claims in the South China Sea (Yet)

by Julian Ku

I have been following closely the U.S. Navy’s plans to use military ships and aircraft to challenge China’s aggressive land reclamation activities in the South China Sea, and China’s not very positive reaction to these plans.  But although there is a real dispute brewing here that could escalate into a sovereignty fight, I think media reports are making this dispute more serious than it actually is.

Contrary to some media reports, the U.S. Navy plans do NOT intend to challenge China’s “sovereignty” claims in the South China Sea. Instead, the U.S. Navy is asserting its rights to freedom of navigation under international law. If we understand the U.S. Navy plans in this context, it may help us defuse (at least somewhat) the growing tensions between the U.S. and China in this region, if only the media would help us out with better reporting.

From CNN, here is an example of how media reporting is making this dispute seem worse than it is.

Above the South China Sea (CNN)The Chinese navy issued warnings eight times as a U.S. surveillance plane on Wednesday swooped over islands that Beijing is using to extend its zone of influence.

The series of man-made islands and the massive Chinese military build-up on them have alarmed the Pentagon, which is carrying out the surveillance flights in order to make clear the U.S. does not recognize China’s territorial claims.

(Emphasis added). This report feeds into the (accurate) narrative about growing tensions between the US and Chinese navies.  In this story, the US Navy is flying “over” the Chinese islands in order to challenge or reject China’s territorial claims.  But later in that same report, CNN says that U.S. Navy is considering “flying such surveillance missions even closer over the islands, as well as sailing U.S. warships within miles of them, as part of the new, more robust U.S. military posture in the area.” (emphasis added).

Here’s the problem.  If the U.S. Navy aircraft featured in the CNN video (a military surveillance plane and “sub hunter”) actually flew “over” the Chinese artificial islands, then why would they consider flying even closer “over” the islands and what would be the significance of sending naval ships?

In fact, the US Navy has tried to make it clear to reporters that they are merely conducting freedom of navigation operations and “that U.S. military aircraft do not fly directly over areas claimed by China in the Spratly Islands.” (in the washington post).  It’s my guess that the Navy hasn’t even flown within 12 nautical miles of the artificial islands.

Why? Because as far as I can tell, this is a standard US Navy “freedom of navigation” operation that it uses to assert international law rights of navigation against numerous countries around the world.  It is NOT, as the CNN and other reports suggest, a challenge to China’s territorial claims.

Freedom of Navigation” operations involve sending US Navy warships into both the 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone and the 12 nautical mile territorial seas recognized under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.  In the view of  the U.S., military warships and aircraft are free to conduct surveillance operations (e.g. spying) in any country’s 200 nm EEZ and surface warships (but not military aircraft or submarines) have the right to “innocent passage” through a country’s 12 nautical mile territorial waters.

The U.S. Navy has been conducting  “freedom of navigation” operations for decades to enforce these views of international law, and it even has a “Freedom of Navigation” website making public where it has been operating. The point of these operations it to publicly challenge a country which is making (in the U.S. view) unjustified legal rights under UNCLOS.  China has a longstanding disagreement with this U.S. interpretation of UNCLOS. So they always make protests, and China has sometimes sent its fighter jets out to harass or challenge US spy aircraft.

But the bottom line: pace CNN, freedom of navigation operations are not challenges to “territorial claims” or “sovereignty.” The US Navy operations assume that the other nation has “sovereignty” over the relevant coastline or island.  So the US Navy operations near China’s artificial islands can assume that China has sovereignty but still demand China allow US military aircraft and ships  transit rights etc. under UNCLOS.

It is worth noting that the U.S. could escalate the dispute with China.  The U.S. might take the view that China is building artificial islands on top  of reefs or submerged features which do not entitle China to any legal rights at all (See UNCLOS, Art.60(8): “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.”).  If so, then the US would fly within 12 nm miles or even directly “over” the artificial islands. Such operations would effectively be a direct challenge  to a China’s territorial claims, because the U.S. would be taking the view that China has no territorial basis at all for claims in the South China Sea.

“Challenging legal rights under UNCLOS” doesn’t make for very sexy headlines or get many clicks as compared to “challenging China’s territorial claims”. But it is worth parsing media reports about US Navy activities in the South China Sea very carefully, and it would be nice of those well-sourced reporters would clarify just how close the US Navy is going to fly/sail to China’s reclaimed islands.

Maybe the U.S. government should directly challenge China’s territorial claims and sovereignty claims.  I am not sure in my own mind whether the U.S. should take that next step.   But for now, the U.S. hasn’t challenged China’s territorial claims yet, and I wish reporters would stop making it seem like it is doing so.