The UNCLOS arbitral tribunal formed to hear a dispute brought by the Philippines against China has set December 15 as a deadline for China to submit a legal brief or memorial. As most of our readers know, China has steadfastly refused to even participate in the arbitral process. It has not selected any arbitrators and it did not attend the first hearing last spring. I (like most observers) expected China to ignore the December 15 deadline as well.
Although it looks like China will not file a formal legal memorial, it released yesterday a long, tightly argued “position paper” that looks a lot like a formal legal memorial (at least on the question of the tribunal’s jurisdiction). So China is going to essentially file a jurisdictional objection (since the tribunal will surely read this paper) without having to file a formal legal brief.
It’s the best of both worlds for China, since if the tribunal is influenced by the position paper, then this is good for China. If the tribunal ultimately reject the legal position and asserts jurisdiction, China will be able to say that it never actually participated in the arbitration anyway.
As a legal document, the position paper is very well done and is the best legal analysis of the jurisdictional issues in the Philippines arbitration I have seen coming out of China, and certainly from the Chinese government. Granted, the Philippines have not released their own memorial so I haven’t had the chance to read their side. Essentially, China has three arguments against jurisdiction:
The essence of the subject-matter of the arbitration is the territorial sovereignty over several maritime features in the South China Sea, which is beyond the scope of the Convention and does not concern the interpretation or application of the Convention;
China and the Philippines have agreed, through bilateral instruments and the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, to settle their relevant disputes through negotiations. By unilaterally initiating the present arbitration, the Philippines has breached its obligation under international law;
Even assuming,arguendo, that the subject-matter of the arbitration were concerned with the interpretation or application of the Convention, that subject-matter would constitute an integral part of maritime delimitation between the two countries, thus falling within the scope of the declaration filed by China in 2006 in accordance with the Convention, which excludes,inter alia, disputes concerning maritime delimitation from compulsory arbitration and other compulsory dispute settlement procedures;
What is good about the position paper is that offers careful and credible legal analysis and avoids (for the most part) the annoying official propaganda tone that is the bane of every China-analyst. I haven’t had the time to go through the paper with any great detail, so I will offer more detailed analysis at a future time. I will just say for now that I am most skeptical of China’s second argument: that the “Philippines has breached its obligation under international law” by failing to settle this dispute via negotiations. While China has usefully offered facts to explain how the Philippines has not really fulfilled its obligations to negotiate, I just don’t think the Declaration of Conduct China is relying upon can be interpreted to bar any and all UNCLOS arbitrations indefinitely, as China would seem to have it.
But there is a lot here to chew on. I will try to share more of my thoughts when I’ve had time think about this paper more carefully. And I’m sure the Philippines will be tempted to release at least the jurisdictional portion of their brief as well. I hope they do, since the public reaction to their legal arguments will be just as important as any ruling the tribunal makes.