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.

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.

China Defends Itself on South China Sea: “We are against the arbitrary distortion of the international law.”

by Julian Ku

There is no shortage of commentary on the growing US-China tensions over China’s land reclamation activities in the South China Sea. I’ve already added my two cents on the legal aspects here, but it’s worth trying to understand China’s defense of its actions.  Here is China’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman at a press conference responding to comments from US and Japanese leaders that China should abide by international law.

The international law has been constantly brought up by some countries when it comes to the South China Sea issue. If they did read closely the international law, then please tell us which article in the international law forbids China to carry out justified construction on its own islands and reefs? Which article allows the vessels and aircraft of one country to monitor the islands and reefs of another country at a close distance? Which article gives the green light to one country’s infringement upon another country’s sovereignty and legitimate rights and interests with the excuse of navigation freedom? We are against the arbitrary distortion of the international law. If it is not a practice of double standard, then it must be driven by some hidden motives.

Let me take the two (rhetorical) questions in order:

1) “[W]hich article in the international law forbids China to carry out justified construction on its own islands and reefs?

China has a point here. There is no explicit prohibition under international law on construction on a country’s own “islands and reefs.”  That is why the US calls on China to stop land reclamation don’t have a strong legal basis, especially since it appears most of the other South China Sea claimants have also engaged in some (smaller scale) land reclamation.

On the other hand, it is far from clear China is building out on “islands”. It is likely that it has possession only of “rocks” or maybe even just “reefs.” And it is far from clear that China has title to whatever land features it is using.  But land reclamation alone isn’t a violation of any international law that I am aware of.

2) “Which article allows the vessels and aircraft of one country to monitor the islands and reefs of another country at a close distance? Which article gives the green light to one country’s infringement upon another country’s sovereignty and legitimate rights and interests with the excuse of navigation freedom?”

Here, China is on much shakier ground. As I explained at too much length here, UNCLOS is probably best interpreted to allow surveillance and monitoring by foreign military vessels and aircraft up to 12 nautical miles of a country’s territories, and within those 12 nm if the territory is only a rock or a reef.  China doesn’t agree with this interpretation, and this is the crux of the dispute with the U.S.

Overall, I think China has a strong legal point on land reclamation, but a weak legal point on surveillance and freedom of navigation.  The obvious “compromise”  (or maybe the word is “standoff”) here is for the US to tacitly accede to China’s land reclamation, and for China to tacitly accede to US military surveillance up to and perhaps within 12 nautical miles.  Since the US can’t actually stop China from continuing its land reclamation, and China can’t stop US surveillance, this “compromise” seems like a safe bet. I will note, however, that China’s actions have unleashed the hawkish wing of the China-watching establishment in the U.S. and, over the long term, this may be the most important outcome of this standoff.  The US is taking off the gloves against China and a containment strategy with our new best friends in Vietnam and India  is becoming increasingly likely.

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.

Dear News Agencies of the World: China Did NOT Breach Taiwan’s Airspace, Just Its ADIZ

by Julian Ku

Several news agencies (here and here) have suggested that recent reports of Chinese military aircraft entering into Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone  is akin to a territorial incursion.  For instance, J. Michael Cole warns at the Diplomat, “If they were indeed intentional, the latest intrusions could signal a further denigration of Taiwan’s sovereignty….”  In my view, calling ADIZ intrusions a breach of “airspace” and a denigration of “sovereignty” overstates the significance of an ADIZ under international law.

Taiwan’s own government has used the phrase “airspace”, so reporters can’t be faulted for repeating this phrase. But legally speaking, entering an Air Defense Identification Zone is NOT the same as entering a nation’s territorial airspace.  For an island like Taiwan, such territorial airspace would presumably start  end 12 nautical miles from its relevant island coast.  An ADIZ is usually a much larger zone declared by countries in order to allow them to track and identify aircraft that come near their territorial airspace.  If you look at Taiwan’s ADIZ  (in red), you’ll notice it goes well beyond 12 20131209DEN0006Mnautical miles from Taiwan’s coast (in fact, it technically stretches into China itself!).  An ADIZ is adjacent to a nation’s territorial airspace.  Declaring an ADIZ is not by itself illegal because it is not a claim of sovereign control over the airspace.  Of course, nations with an ADIZ usually demand foreign aircraft identify themselves before entering their ADIZ, but nations do not usually claim the right to exclude other nations’ aircraft from their ADIZ, as if it was sovereign territory. (For a recent discussion of the legal issues in ADIZ declarations, see here).

Now, since China has usually been careful to avoid crossing into Taiwan’s ADIZ (or at least parts of Taiwan’s ADIZ), its decision to do so now is interesting and significant.  But it is not a territorial incursion and it is not (technically) breaching “Taiwan’s airspace”.  So news agencies should be careful not to report it as such.

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.

China and the Philippines Take Their “Battle” Over South China Sea to Military Conference

by Julian Ku

The indefatigable Benjamin Wittes at Lawfare has a short post describing a lively exchange between the Chinese and Filipino representatives at MILSOPS, an invitation-only off-the-record meeting of top military officials from the Asia-Pacific region, about China’s nine-dash-line claim to the South China Sea.

Apparently, this has been an ongoing debate at this annual conference. Last year, the Chinese representative presented this set of powerpoint slides usefully entitled:  “China has indisputable sovereignty over the islands in the South China Sea: Understanding the South China Sea issue from the angle of law”.  (The title says it all). Ben says he is somewhat constrained in his reporting since the conference is off-the-record, but hopefully he can get participants to write more about their exchange.

The one thing that is a constant in these slides and from other articles from China is that Chinese officials are using their claim to sovereignty over the “Nansha” islands as the basis for their claims of “indisputable sovereignty.”  And China does indeed have plausible sovereignty claims to many of the islands in the South China Sea, and those sovereignty claims are of course not subject to UNCLOS arbitration.  But no one in China has really offered a particularly detailed explanation of how the sovereignty claims to the islands can justify the “nine-dash line” (see my earlier post here describing the nine-dash line claim) which goes well beyond a 12 mile territorial sea or the 200 mile exclusive economic zone. Thus, even if China had sovereignty over every random rock in the South China Sea, it can’t quite support the nine-dash line.  I wish Chinese scholars would offer a more comprehensive explanation or defense of the nine-dash line, as oppose to muddying the issue by raising their island sovereignty claims.  It is the nine-dash line that makes China’s claims unusual, and particularly dangerous.  And, oddly, it overshadows and weakens China’s much better and more legally supportable claims to particular South China Sea islands.

China and Sovereignty Under International Law

by Julian Ku

As regular readers of this blog might have noticed, I have become more and more interested China and its engagement with international law issues.   Last year, I proposed to the ASIL Planning Committee that we put together a panel of leading U.S. China law scholars.  But the ASIL organizers pushed back and put together a much more diverse group than I had suggested, which included a U.S. China scholar like Jacques Delisle from Penn, but also Chinese international law scholars like Bingbing Jia of Tsinghua and then added a nice dose of on-the-ground policy analysis from Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt of the International Crisis Group.  It ended up being a terrific mix of style, topics, and expertise.  We didn’t rate a “livestream”, but I wanted to share a few thoughts for our readers on what I think is an important topic. I am not going to attempt to summarize their comments, but simply offer some of my reactions to their key points.

The idea of the panel (at least to me) was to consider whether the “rise of China” in global affairs has changed much about how China interacts with international law. In my crude formulation, the question is now less about what “international law does to China” but more what “China will do to international law.”

Both of the lawyer-panelists (Jia and Delisle) focused on “sovereignty” as the most important principle guiding China’s understanding and engagement with international law.

What Happens if China Tries to Boycott UNCLOS Arbitration? A Japanese Guy Gets to Appoint the Tribunal

by Julian Ku

[I know that what this blog needs is yet another post on the China-Philippines UNCLOS Arbitration! We aim to please!]

Steve Groves of Heritage asks in the comments to my prior post: What happens if China simply refuses to show up at the arbitration? Can an arbitral tribunal even be formed to rule on jurisdiction?

This is something that I’ve wondered too, and then I realized Annex VII of UNCLOS appears to settle this issue as well.  The key provision is Article 3 of Annex VII. Under Art. 3(b), the initiating party appoints an arbitrator, which the Philippines has already done.  Then,

(c) The other party to the dispute shall, within 30 days of receipt of the notification referred to in article l of this Annex, appoint one member to be chosen preferably from the list, who may be its national. If the appointment is not made within that period, the party instituting the proceedings may, within two weeks of the expiration of that period, request that the appointment be made in accordance with subparagraph (e).

(Emphasis added.).  Turning to Subparagraph (e):

(e) Unless the parties agree that any appointment under subparagraphs (c) and (d) be made by a person or a third State chosen by the parties, the President of the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea shall make the necessary appointments.

(Emphasis added). Essentially, this means the President of ITLOS can fill out the rest of the arbitral tribunal if China tries to boycott, by appointing the remaining four members.  As Craig Allen of the University of Washington pointed out to me in an email, the current President of ITLOS is Shunji Yanai, a well-respected diplomat and jurist.  That is to say, a well-respected Japanese diplomat and jurist.  I’ve met President Yanai briefly, and he is a very smart and well-accomplished guy.  But Japan is just not on China’s BFF list right now.  China’s Weibo Internet commenters might well just blow up if this happens.

Professor Allen suggests that the President of ITLOS might, before appointing arbitrators, consider the jurisdictional objection and refuse to appoint a tribunal. I think this is a plausible, but not the most natural reading of Annex VII, Art. 3.  Professor Allen also raises a good point: China’s best friend here might well be the United States, which has a strong interest in seeing an expansive reading of the Article 298 exemptions.

In any event, the few Annex VII arbitral tribunals that have been constituted have generally not hesitated to rule on their own jurisdiction.  See Barbados v. Trinidad, or Guyana v. Suriname. (For a full list, see here).  Even worse from China’s perspective, these Annex VII arbitral tribunals issued their jurisdictional decision at the same time as they issued the award on the merits.  They don’t have to do so, and they can bifurcate the proceedings to address jurisdiction first.  But they don’t have to.

Would one of the journalists forced to sit through Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs press briefings please ask the spokesman to address the arbitral tribunal question?  Or at least, ask them again? Will China play the arbitral tribunal game and appoint someone by February 21?  Or will they let President Yanai appoint the tribunal for them?   The 30-day clock is running.