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.

Has China Rejected the Philippines Arbitration Already? Not yet.

by Julian Ku

This article from the Global Times, a hawkish state-controlled newspaper in China, probably reflects a little bit of the official Chinese view on the Philippines UNCLOS claim. It also contains this troubling bit of analysis, from a Chinese scholar:

The international court would not take the case without agreements from all parties involved, Dong Manyuan, a researcher at the China Institute of International Studies, told the Global Times.

Uh, yes, that’s true in a general sense.  But China has already agreed to allow an Article 287 arbitral tribunal to take this case and at least to determine jurisdiction. Article 288(4) would seem to be the last word on this point.

4. In 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.

Sorry, Global Times! China is stuck with this case, at least as a legal matter, and at least through the jurisdictional phase. I hope the Chinese government is getting better legal advice than this. China could boycott the arbitration, but they would be in a clear violation of Article 287 and Article 288 of UNCLOS.  Will it dare to do so?

Will China Participate in the UNCLOS Arbitration with the Philippines?

by Julian Ku

China’s initial reaction to the Philippines’ decision yesterday to file an arbitration claim has been to stick to its guns.  From the BBC:

On Wednesday, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei told journalists that China has “indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea islands and adjacent waters, which has abundant historical and legal grounds”.

“The key and root of the dispute over the South China Sea between China and the Philippines is territorial disputes caused by the Philippines’ illegal occupation of some of the Chinese islets and atolls of the Spratly Islands,” he said.

He said China had been “consistently working towards resolving the disputes through dialogue and negotiations to defend Sino-Philippine relations and regional peace and stability”.

Some observers, quoted here by the VOA, have suggested that China will simply not participate in the UNCLOS arbitration.  I think this makes sense from a strategic perspective, but it is hard to understand how that would work from a legal perspective.

As a legal matter, China has an obligation to participate in the UNCLOS arbitration by selecting an arbitrator, and then a schedule for the proceedings.  It will then file a challenge to the UNCLOS arbitration tribunal’s jurisdiction (an argument I believe it has a good chance to win).  If China simply doesn’t show up, then it would be in clear violation of its UNCLOS obligations.

China has an interesting choice here. It could participate in the arbitration, and if it loses on jurisdiction, simply withdraw and declare that it won’t abide by the tribunal’s decision.  Or it could litigate to the merits, and then if it loses, simply refuse to comply with the arbitral tribunal’s award.

None of these potential arbitral results are really all that attractive, from China’s perspective. But defaulting on the arbitration is not all that attractive either.  What China does here will tell us a lot about China’s commitment to its strategic goal of controlling the South China Sea, as well as its level of commitment to UNCLOS and international dispute resolution.

Game Changer? Philippines Seeks UNCLOS Arbitration with China Over the South China Sea

by Julian Ku

In a potentially huge development, the Government of the Philippines announced earlier today that it has filed for arbitration with China under the UN Convention for the Law of the Sea. The Philippines’ claim places China’s controversial sovereignty claim over the South China Sea (see right) squarely before an international arbitral tribunal convened under Article 287 of UNCLOS.  According to the Philippines Foreign Minister, here are the main claims:

  1. The Philippines asserts that China’s so-called nine-dash line claim that encompasses virtually the entire South China Sea/West Philippine Sea is contrary to UNCLOS and thus unlawful.
  2. Within the maritime area encompassed by the 9-dash line, China has also laid claim to, occupied and built structures on certain submerged banks, reefs and low tide elevations that do not qualify as islands under UNCLOS, but are parts of the Philippine continental shelf, or the international seabed.
  3. In addition, China has occupied certain small, uninhabitable coral projections that are barely above water at high tide, and which are “rocks” under Article 121 (3) of UNCLOS.China has interfered with the lawful exercise by the Philippines of its rights within its legitimate maritime zones, as well as to the aforementioned features and their surrounding waters.
  4. The Philippines is conscious of China’s Declaration of August 25, 2006 under Article 298 of UNCLOS (regarding optional exceptions to the compulsory proceedings), and has avoided raising subjects or making claims that China has, by virtue of that Declaration, excluded from arbitral jurisdiction.

Some early thoughts.  As I argued here, I still think the Philippines has a massive jurisdictional problem because of China’s Article 298 declaration excludes the following certain subjects from this kind of arbitration.

(a)(i) disputes concerning the interpretation or application of articles 15, 74 and 83 relating to sea boundary delimitations, or those involving historic bays or titles….

China is claiming (at least it has often seemed to be claiming) that it has complete sovereignty over the South China Sea (per the map above). I take the Philippines is arguing that China’s South China Sea claim is not really a “sea boundary  delimitation” within the meaning of Article 15.  Nor is the Chinese SCS claim about “historic bays” and “titles”.  I don’t think that the Philippines has a hopeless case, but I do think they will face a huge challenge to get any arbitral tribunal to assert jurisdiction here, especially since one judge will be appointed by China.

On the plus side, if the Philippines manages to get past the jurisdictional hurdle, it seems to me that they have a very good chance of prevailing since China’s claim is hard to square with the rest of UNCLOS.  Moreover, they force China to go on the defensive here without actually threatening China in any military or economic way.

Strategically, I think I understand why the Philippines has filed this claim. They have very little leverage with China: economically, politically, or militarily.  In this forum, the worst case scenario is the Philippines will lose on jurisdiction. This shouldn’t affect the merits of their claims, though.  For China, the worst case scenario is that it loses on the merits and would have to face the decision of whether to comply with the tribunal.  If they lose, I can see China simply withdrawing from UNCLOS.

In any event, I think it is safe to say this it a game changer in the long-running South China Sea dispute.  It is also, without question, the most important case that has ever been filed under the dispute resolution procedures of UNCLOS.  It will be a crucial test of the UNCLOS institutions, as well as of UNCLOS members.  I am skeptical that China will allow itself to be drawn into serious international adjudication (see my argument here), but it will be fascinating to see how China reacts.

Why the Philippines Has No Chance of Making China Go to Court

by Julian Ku

I’ve been following the standoff between the Philippines Navy and Chinese “surveillance” ships in the South China Sea (or West Philippines Sea) with some concern. As I noted here, China has some rather expansive territorial claims in the South China Sea that countries like the Philippines are resisting.  But given the relative sizes of their navies, it is obvious that the Philippines cannot rely on military force to resist China’s claims. But I am doubtful that the Philippines’ attempt to invoke the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea or the International Tribunal of the Law of the Sea will have much effect here.  Here is China’s argument, according to a Filipino newspaper:

“Until 1997, the Philippine side has never disputed China’s jurisdiction of and development of Huangyan Island. On the other hand, the Philippines indicated on a number of occasions that Huangyan Island was beyond its territory. According to international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, the Philippines’ claim of jurisdiction and sovereignty rights over Huangyan Island with the arguments of Exclusive Economic Zone is groundless. Unclos allows coastal states to claim a 200-nautical mile EEZ, but coastal states have no rights to infringe on the inherent territory and sovereignty of other countries,” it said.

China’s position is that this is a question of sovereignty, and not the Law of the Sea.  There is no basis for the ITLOS to assert jurisdiction over this dispute, without China’s consent.  This seems right to me.  Except that no one is sure exactly what the basis of China’s sovereignty claim is, but assuming it has one, then the Law of the Sea is not going to help the Filipinos out here.