Why China Will Ignore the UNCLOS Tribunal Judgment, and (Probably) Get Away With It

by Julian Ku

U.S. commentary has largely celebrated the UNCLOS Arbitral Tribunal’s award finding it has jurisdiction to consider the merits on many of the Philippines’ South China Sea related claims against China.   Perhaps the most positive note is found in Jill Goldenziel’s essay at the Diplomat entitled, “International Law Is the Real Threat to China in the South China Sea.”

But just by getting this far, the case already has important implications for the use of international courts to manage and resolve international conflicts. International law has become a weapon of the weak. Countries that cannot afford or have no chance of winning military conflicts have increasingly turned to courts to resolve territorial, economic, and human rights claims. Other countries are closely watching the Philippines as they consider similar options for asserting their own rights in the South China Sea and beyond. Vietnam, in particular, is considering filing a similar lawsuit. At the very least, the case may force China to engage in talks with its neighbors to resolve competing claims to the South China Sea. By doing so, China can save face and claim to resolve the disputes on its own terms. If law can bring China to its knees, cases involving the South China Sea will have ripple effects far beyond its shores.

For my own part, I am much more skeptical about the benefits of an arbitral award for the Philippines. As I argued last year, there is little reason to think China will suffer serious reputational consequences for defying the UNCLOS Arbitral Tribunal’s award on jurisdiction or on the merits. Why?

Because other cases involving “weak” nations using international courts against “strong” nations shows that “strong” nations suffer few consequences and rarely change behavior significantly. The most similar case to Philippines v. China is probably the 1986 ICJ judgment in Nicaragua v. United States. That case (also brought by the Philippines’ current lawyer Paul Reichler) resulted in the U.S. withdrawing from the compulsory jurisdiction of the ICJ, not showing up for the merits argument, and ignoring the ICJ’s final judgment on the merits in that case. While the U.S. suffered some negative votes in the General Assembly and had to veto several Security Council resolutions, it is hard to argue that the U.S. “complied” with the ICJ judgment as a result of the reputational costs it suffered by walking away. The U.S. never paid the compensation the ICJ held that it owed, and it stopped mining Nicaraguan harbors only years later.

Russia has also recently demonstrated the ability of a “Strong” state to ignore an international court ruling. After detaining a Dutch-flagged Greenpeace vessel and its crew in 2013, Russia faced a provisional measures proceeding in the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea. That tribunal ordered Russia to “promptly release” the vessel upon the posting of a bond and to release the crew as well.   Russia did not show up for the argument in court, and simply ignored the ITLOS order as well as a subsequent UNCLOS arbitral award.

Perhaps the Philippines will win some sort of leverage over China down the road by using a favorable award as a bargaining chip with China. But in the short-term, the Philippines has enraged China and has also led China to denounce (for the first time) the UNCLOS arbitral tribunal itself. It would not be impossible to imagine China announcing a withdrawal from UNCLOS (just to avoid the dispute settlement provisions) and simply adhering to UNCLOS as customary international law. That result will not be great for China, but I have a hard time seeing how it helps the Philippines either.

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.

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.

Game On with New Player? Vietnam Files Statement Against China at UN Arbitral Tribunal

by Julian Ku

The government of Vietnam appears to have filed a statement of its legal views with the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea arbitral tribunal formed to resolve the Philippines-China dispute in the South China Sea.  It is a little unclear exactly what Vietnam has filed.  According to its Ministry of Foreign Affairs website:

In response to the question on Viet Nam’s position regarding the South China Sea Arbitration case, spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Viet Nam Le Hai Binh affirmed that:
“To protect its legal rights and interests in the East Sea which may be affected in the South China Sea Arbitration case, Viet Nam has expressed its position to the Tribunal regarding this case, and requested the Tribunal to pay due attention to the legal rights and interests of Viet Nam.”/.

According to the South China Morning Post, the Vietnamese submission has three points.

1) It supports the Philippines on the question of the tribunal’s jurisdiction.
2) It asks the tribunal to give due regard to Vietnam’s legal rights and interests
3) It rejects the legality of the Chinese “nine-dash line”.

I think this filing has much more political than legal significance.  As a legal matter, I don’t think there is any procedure in the UNCLOS dispute settlement system for third-party interventions, so I think this is really just like sending a letter to the arbitral tribunal.  It has no legal significance, and the tribunal has no obligation to consider it. But of course, it has the right to do so if it believes it is relevant to the dispute before it.

On the other hand, this is a political victory for the Philippines, since it means that Vietnam has tacitly agreed to join a common front against China.  I remain skeptical (as I wrote yesterday) of the Philippines’ legal strategy, even with this support from Vietnam, because China has the same arguments against Vietnam and it will not likely change course.   The next question: Will Vietnam file its own legal claim and form its own arbitral tribunal? That might push China into a different response, but I would still bet against it.

Why the Philippines’ Arbitration Against China is Doomed to Fail

by Julian Ku

Over at The National Interest, I have an essay considering the strategic implications of the Philippines arbitration claim against China.  I argue that the Philippines made a mistake by trying to force China into an arbitration under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, and that their “lawfare” strategy is probably going to backfire.

Due in part to domestic pressures for a robust nationalism in defense of all territorial claims, China has not yet reached the point where arbitration seems like a reasonable way to settle its maritime disputes.  And since it has now spent months denouncing the Philippines arbitration as illegal and illegitimate in its domestic press and internationally, it will be even harder to accept any form of international dispute resolution in the future.

This is why the Philippines’ effort to force China to accept arbitration now is doomed to fail and will probably backfire. The Philippines will be in no stronger position vis-à-vis China than it was before the arbitration, even if it wins an award.  Meanwhile, the overall credibility and effectiveness of the UNCLOS dispute resolution system will be called into question.  And the U.S. goal of a China that “abides by and reinforces” international law and norms will be even farther off.


China Manages to File (and Not File) a Legal Brief in the Philippines Arbitration

by Julian Ku

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.

What Does China Mean When It Celebrates the “International Rule of Law”?

by Julian Ku

In observance of United Nations Day on October 24, China’s foreign minister Wang Yi issued a long statement expressing China’s view of itself as a “staunch defender and builder of international law” (Chinese version here). As China-watchers know, China’s Communist Party has just completed its “Fourth Plenum” (sort of a Party leadership strategy meeting) on the theme of the promotion of the rule of law, so it is not surprising that China’s leadership would have something to say about the international rule of law as well.

The statement is pretty predictable (and largely unobjectionable) in its broad pledge for Chinese support to “international law” or the “international rule of law.”  It is hardly pathbreaking.  Still, as I have suggested in earlier posts, China’s government tends to have a slightly different view on what constitutes “international law” as compared to the United States or Europe.  So while much of the statement is pretty anodyne (it is communist-party-speak, after all), there are a few points relating to China’s emphasis on sovereignty and its allergy to human rights that are worth noting:

1) International Law and China’s History of National Humiliation

The statement places China’s commitment to international law in the context of its historical struggles facing foreign oppression in invasion beginning with the Opium War of the 1840s.  This reference to China’s historical weakness in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is standard nationalist fare in China, but it is interesting that it is linked here to modern international law. As the statement notes, “[s]eeing the contrast between China’s past and present, the Chinese people fully recognize how valuable sovereignty, independence and peace are.”  I think this historical experience is a useful explanation for why there are deep roots to the version of international law presented here.  For China, international law is closely linked to its achievement of independence from foreign powers, and there is no principle more dear to China in international law than “sovereignty” and independence from foreign domination.  Those of us educated in the States have been taught that sovereignty is usually an obstacle to the promotion of international law (Louis Henkin even called it the “S” word), but that concept is still hard to sell in China.

2) Sovereignty 5:  Human Rights 0

Indeed, the statement mentions “sovereignty” five times as a fundamental principle of international law, as referenced in the United Nations Charter. Thus, the statement cites certain universally recognized norms of international law and relations such as

…[A]s respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, peaceful settlement of international disputes and non-interference in the internal affairs of others, as enshrined in the UN Charter, are the foundation stones upon which modern international law and conduct of international relations are built.

This is right out of Article II of the UN Charter.  But it is hard to imagine a statement by the United States about international law that did not also mention the UN Charter’s commitment to the protection of human rights.  To be sure, human rights protection is not in Article II of the UN Charter’s list of “Principles” but it is odd (at least to an American) to see it ignored so completely here.

3) Just Say No to Responsibility to Protect 

The statement takes direct aim at those countries who are interventionist.

Hegemonism, power politics and all forms of “new interventionism” pose a direct challenge to basic principles of international law including respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity and non-interference in other countries’ internal affairs. Some countries follow a pragmatist or a double-standard approach to international law, using whatever that suits their interests and abandoning whatever that does not.

Hmm.. I wonder which country or countries it is referring to here?  This position also reflects longstanding Chinese policy against any kind of military intervention (and most other kinds as well) no matter what the justification.  So don’t count on a Chinese vote for that Syria intervention.

4) Go Democracy (between, but not within, nations)!

The statement also endorses democracy…that is to say, democracy in international lawmaking.  It accuses some countries (the One-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named) of trying to make “rules of certain countries as “international rules”, and their standards “international standards”. I am guessing this is clearly a shot at the U.S. in areas as varied as trade laws, IP, and human rights.

5) Philippines and UNCLOS arbitral tribunal: Don’t You Dare Ruin International Law

Not surprisingly, the statement takes aim at international and national courts.   It declares:

“National and international judicial institutions should avoid overstepping their authority in interpreting and applying international law. Still less should they encroach on the rights and interests of other countries under the pretext of”the rule of law” in total disregard of objectivity and fairness.”

I think this is clearly a warning signal to the UNCLOS arbitral tribunal formed to resolve the Philippines claim against China.  This is another sign there will be no backing down on this arbitration. China is going to continue to loudly proclaim its commitment to rule of law, and continue to reject and maybe even denigrate the legitimacy of this arbitration.

6) International Rule OF Law, not Rule BY Law

Finally, I’ll note that the statement’s use of the phrase “international rule of law” might help clarify a debate among China-watchers as to what China means by the phrase “rule of law.”  As Josh Chin has usefully explained in the Wall Street Journal here, the Chinese phrase “法治“ (fazhi) is often translated as “rule of law” but could also be translated as “rule by law”.  Indeed, there is a traditional Chinese “Legalist” tradition that thinks of law as an instrument for ruling society, but less so as a constraint on lawmakers and government.  Most China-watchers would probably say that “rule by law” is a more accurate translation of what the Chinese Communist Party means when they call for the promotion of the “法治” (fazhi) in domestic reforms, since most expect the Party to remain effectively above the law for most key matters in the future, but for law to be used as a mechanism of social and political control of everyone else.

No matter what the Party means domestically by 法治 (fazhi), it is clear that its use internationally fits within the Western conception of law as an autonomous force constraining state power and preserving state equality.

In promoting international rule of law, the most important thing is to use universally applicable rules in international relations to distinguish right and wrong, end disputes and seek a win-win solution through coordination. This is vital to international rule of law. The formulation, interpretation and application of international law should all be conducive to this goal. Under no circumstances should we inflate the arrogance of hegemonism and power politics, still less use international rule of law to instigate disagreement and friction,for it will only lead us to a wrong direction.

Indeed, in its call for universally applicable principles, democratic lawmaking, and the use of law to restrain strong states from taking advantage of the weak, the Chinese Communist Party is invoking a version of rule of law that many Westerners would be familiar with.  It will be interesting to see if this conception bleeds over into the Party’s push for domestic rule of/by law reform.


Why “Lawfare” Won’t Deter China in the South China Sea

by Julian Ku

Harry J. Kazianis, the managing editor of The National Interest, has a smart post discussing the risk that the U.S. is taking if it tries to take more aggressive action to counter China in the South China Sea.  Essentially, he argues the U.S. has no effective strategy to counter China’s “non-kinetic” strategy to subtly alter the status quo by using non-military assets to expand control and influence in the region.  I agreed with Kazianis all the way until he offered his own solution:

There only seems one solution to the various territorial disputes in the region—specifically, what some are calling “lawfare.” All of the various claimants that have disputes with China in the South China Sea should appeal collectively to any and all international bodies that could possibly hear their claims. Only together can they hope to get Beijing to halt its aggressive actions.

He goes on to cite the Philippines claim against China in the UN Law of the Sea arbitration system as a possible model for other nations.

“Lawfare” or international law litigation is not going to be an effective counter to China here for at least two reasons (one legal, one policy-based):

  • 1) China has opted out of any “compulsory” system of international dispute resolution that would rule on its territorial claims in the South China Sea (or anywhere, for that matter).  This “opt-out” is perfectly legal and may very well prevent the Philippines from even making their full case to the UNCLOS arbitration tribunal.  There are no other legal institutions that have jurisdiction.  So the only way “lawfare” can work here is if China consents to arbitration. But if Kazianis is right that this is a strategy by China’s neighbors to block its expansion, then why would China ever agree to arbitration?
  • 2) Even if compulsory jurisdiction were somehow found in one of these international bodies, there is very little chance that China would feel compelled to comply with any negative ruling.  This is not a China-specific problem, but rather a problem almost every country faces when considering arbitration over territorial disputes.  The effectiveness of tribunals in these contexts is highly limited since they depend for enforcement on the individual state-parties.  This is why voluntary arbitration tends to work better than compulsory arbitration in these kinds of territorial disputes.  The U.S. and Canada, for example, have managed to settle (most of) their often contentious land and maritime borders through a combination of non-arbitral commissions, and then special bilateral arbitrations.  In the famous “Gulf of Maine” case, the U.S. Senate actually approved a special treaty with Canada to send a maritime dispute to a special chamber of the ICJ.  Although clunky, this model is far more likely to succeed in getting state compliance.

So while I agree with Kanianis and other commentators that China needs to be deterred from its current strategy in the South China Sea, I am fairly confident the use of “lawfare” will not be a way to accomplish this goal.

Game On, Again? Vietnam Planning to File Legal Action Against China Over South China Sea Dispute

by Julian Ku

There have been lots of reports out in the last 24 hours saying that the Government of Vietnam is planning to take legal action against China for its movement of an oil rig into disputed waters in the South China Sea.  Indeed, the Philippines Government has stated that Vietnam has consulted it about its ongoing arbitration case against China and the two nations issued a joint statement of solidarity opposing China’s actions in the South China Sea.

What would the Vietnam legal action look like? The most likely action would be to seek arbitration under Annex VII of UNCLOS, just as the Philippines has done.  Of course, China would have the same defense and likely the same reaction to any Vietnam claim: that China’s Article 298 declaration excluding disputes over matters involving “sea boundary delimitations”or “involving historic bays or titles….” would exclude jurisdiction.  Moreover, China might further argue that Article 298 also allows it exclude “disputes concerning military activities, including military activities by government vessels and aircraft engaged in non-commercial service, and disputes concerning law enforcement activities in regard to the exercise of sovereign rights or jurisdiction….”

At first glance, I can’t see how Vietnam’s claim would be any better or worse than that of the Philippines with respect to jurisdiction.  Vietnam has the same objection to China’s Nine Dash Line, and Vietnam similarly argues certain South China Sea features claimed by China are not “islands” for purposes of UNCLOS entitled to an Exclusive Economic Zone.  So I think we will see a rerun of the Philippines arbitration.  Vietnam will constitute a tribunal, China will not participate, and away it goes.

Some other reports out of Vietnam suggest it will file a claim with the International Court of Justice, if only to show their good faith, even though the ICJ has no jurisdiction over China.  I don’t think this is a great strategy, but maybe it will be a useful diplomatic showcase.

Finally, there are reports Vietnam will allow its state-owned oil company to file an action against China’s state-owned oil company in Vietnamese courts.  This actually seems like an interesting idea, since once the Vietnamese company won the judgment, it could in theory try to enforce it against the assets of the Chinese company overseas.  It is not a slam-dunk, but it certainly could be a plausible claim.

I am doubtful that  an additional arbitration will lead to China backing down.  Certainly, the Philippines arbitration has not caused China to moderate its behavior toward the Philippines.   The extra added pressure of  a Vietnam arbitration is not huge, and my guess is that China will continue to simply ignore the arbitrations, reputational costs be damned.  I am not saying that it is bad strategy for Vietnam to try the arbitration route, but Vietnam should be realistic about the veryreal costs, and limited benefits of this strategy.

So How is China Reacting to the Philippines Arbitration Submission? Not Very Well

by Julian Ku

China has not been quiet in reacting to the Philippines filing Sunday of its memorial in the UNCLOS South China Sea arbitration.  In addition to the foreign ministry’s remarks, the People’s Daily has released a full-scale defense of China’s legal and policy position (recently translated here). It is the longest official (well, close-to-official) statement of China’s legal position on the arbitration as I’ve seen anywhere. The heart of China’s argument is that this whole Philippines dispute is about sovereignty over the Nansha Islands, parts of which the Philippines is illegally occupying.  Because this is about sovereignty, and because China excluded maritime and territorial disputes from UNCLOS arbitral jurisdiction in its 2006 declaration, it is the Philippines (and not China) that is violating international law by filing the arbitration claim. Here are a couple of legal arguments or claims in the commentary that jumped out at me. (Read more after the jump)

Game On! Philippines Files (4000 page) Memorial in China UNCLOS Arbitration

by Julian Ku

Just in time for the odd Sunday filing deadline, the government of the Philippines announced that it had submitted its memorial in its arbitration with China under UNCLOS.

Ignoring a possible backlash from China, the Philippine government transmitted the document, called a “memorial” in international arbitration parlance, on Sunday to the Netherlands-based Permanent Court of Arbitration where a five-member tribunal operating under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea will hear Manila’s complaint.

“Today, the Philippines submitted its memorial to the arbitral tribunal that is hearing the case its brought against the People’s Republic of China under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea,” Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario told a news conference.

“With firm conviction, the ultimate purpose of our memorial is our national interest.”

Manila declined to release a copy of the memorial as it has yet to be reviewed by the court.

But Del Rosario said the Philippine “memorial” consists of “ten volumes with maps,” “nearly 4,000 pages” and will fortify the Philippine case which seeks to declare China’s exaggerated claim illegal. A hard copy will be forwarded to the tribunal on Monday.

I hope and trust that at least volume I of the memorial (containing the 270-pages of actual legal argument and analysis) is released publicly soon.  I do think the additional 3700-plus pages of annexes is overkill in a case where the other side is highly unlikely to bother answering.  Still, it will be an interesting public statement of the Philippines’ best legal arguments.  I have grown increasingly skeptical of this Philippines argument, both from a legal and a strategic standpoint.  But I would like to see their arguments.