Professor Stefan Talmon of the University of Bonn and St. Anne’s College in Oxford offers one of the first serious attempts to defend China’s position on the UNCLOS arbitration brought by the Philippines. In an essay published by the Global Times, China’s hawkish state-owned daily paper, Professor Talmon argues that all of the Philippines’ claims against China fall outside of the jurisdiction of the UNCLOS arbitral tribunal.
For example, the claim that China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea based on the so-called nine-dash line are invalid, the claim that China has unlawfully claimed maritime entitlements beyond 12 nautical miles around certain insular features and has prevented Philippine vessels from fishing in the waters adjacent to those features, and the claim that China has unlawfully interfered with the exercise by the Philippines of its right to navigation and other rights cannot be decided without touching upon China’s claim to historic title and rights within the area of the nine-dash line.
In addition, any measures taken by China against the Philippine vessels may also be subject to the “law enforcement activities” exception with regard to fisheries matters or may be excluded as an exercise of China’s sovereign rights and jurisdiction provided by UNCLOS.
The claim that China unlawfully occupies certain low-tide elevations in the South China Sea cannot be addressed without dealing with the question of sovereignty or other rights over these insular land territories.
Finally, declarations that certain submerged features form part of the continental shelf of the Philippines, that China has unlawfully exploited the living and non-living resources in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone and continental shelf, and that China has interfered with the Philippines’ right to navigation and other rights in areas within and beyond 200 nautical miles of the Philippines cannot be made without engaging in sea boundary delimitations.
I have to admit I am not very persuaded by this analysis. In Prof. Talmon’s defense, the essay is very short and not an attempt to provide a deep legal analysis of the problem. But the idea that any challenge to the nine-dash line is excluded from UNCLOS arbitration is hardly obvious to me, since the basis of China’s nine-dash line is very murky anyway. It is not an historic bay. I suppose it could be an “historic title” within the meaning of Article 298, but that is hardly obvious. Under Prof. Talmon’s reading, any claim of historic title, even if it undermines all of the other principles of UNCLOS, are outside the jurisdiction of the UNCLOS tribunal.
Similarly, when the Philippines argues that something is a “rock” and not an “island” under the definition of UNCLOS, I don’t see how that requires a sea boundary determination?
Most importantly, I can’t see how Prof. Talmon can avoid the question of why China is not even bothering to make these jurisdictional arguments in the UNCLOS tribunal. It is an oddly disrespectful move, to say the least, for China to essentially boycott the tribunal. Does Prof. Talmon think the Philippines case is so weak that ignoring the arbitration is justified?
Still, it is worth exploring these questions, since the arbitral tribunal will likely do so. I would hope Prof. Talmon has a longer version of his views posted somewhere, and if not, he is welcome to do so here at any time!