Assessing the Fallout from the South China Sea Award

by Julian Ku

In addition to my posts here (see below), I have several  pieces over the last week discussing different aspects of the South China Sea award up at various outlets across the web universe (I know, I know, I need to stop writing about this topic, but indulge me just a little longer).  To briefly recap my various takes, here is a quick summary:

As a legal matter, China lost every substantive issue before the South China Sea arbitral tribunal.  I argued here at Lawfare that the award “dramatically widens” the scope of future more aggressive U.S. freedom of navigation operations by, for instance, eliminating any legal basis for a Chinese territorial sea around its artificial island on Mischief Reef.  Since that reef is also within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, the U.S. Navy has (as a legal matter) carte blanche to sail or fly within 500 meters of what is now an artificial island in clear violation of Philippines’ rights under UNCLOS.

On the other hand, I warned here in The National Interest that the arbitral award does not require China to leave the South China Sea or the Spratlys in particular.  The award leaves open the legal possibility for China to claim a series of 12 nautical mile territorial seas around various rocks in the island group. This means that even in China complied with the award, it would have the legal right to maintain a robust presence there.

Taking a step back, I also blamed China’s government (in this piece for Quartz) for exacerbating the negative impact of the award by refusing the participate in the proceedings and then starting a global media war against it.  This drew much more attention to the award than would have otherwise been the case.

Finally, over at Foreign Policy, I offered a very tough critique of the role of Chinese international law scholars in bolstering the Chinese government’s claim that it can legally ignore the arbitration.  It is not so much that Chinese international legal scholars were wrong, but that their unanimity weakens their long-term credibility on the global stage.  I contrast the unanimity within China’s academic community with the much-divided U.S. academic reaction to the U.S. government’s refusal to comply with the ICJ’s Nicaragua judgment in 1986.

For any Chinese-language readers out there, I have been engaging in a debate (thanks to the fabulous translation work of my student Weitao Chen) at the Financial Times (Chinese edition) with Professor Liu Haiyang on China’s obligation under UNCLOS Article 288(4) to accept the arbitral tribunal’s determination of its own jurisdiction. Here was my initial essay, here is Prof. Liu’s response, and here is my rebuttal.  Annoyingly, it appears my initial essay has been censored in China, which must mean I am making good arguments!

I am not done with discussing this award, but I do need to get a life at some point. I am also trying to incorporate all of this into a larger project on China’s overall relationship with international law.  Certainly, this whole dispute will be a significant chapter in my book!

The Lawfare over South China Sea: Exceptional Rules vs. General Rules

by Liu Haiyang

[Liu Haiyang is a research fellow at the Collaborative Innovation Center of South China Sea Studies, Nanjing University, China. This post was submitted to Opinio Juris under the auspices of the Chinese Initiative on International Law, an NGO with a mandate of promoting a better understanding of international law, particularly international criminal law and justice.]

The ad hoc Arbitral Tribunal established under the request of Philippines issued its final award on 12 July 2016. The lawfare over the legal effect of the verdicts of the Tribunal between China, on one side, and the United States with its allies and partners behind the case, on the other, will change focus from the legality of jurisdiction concerning the preliminary award to the legal consequences of the final award.

Although the U.S. is not a party to the present case, it seemed well prepared for the decision. Besides a significant increase of military presence and operations, with more warships and aircraft in the South China Sea, the U.S. and its allies have also loudly raised their voices to urge China to respect the final decisions of the said arbitral tribunal. The general tone of the criticisms suggests that China’s non-compliance with the final ruling would amount to non-compliance with international law and as well as a show of contempt for the international rule of law. For its part, China has also stepped up its media campaign to defend its position of non-recognition of any ruling by the tribunal through more diplomatic efforts and academic symposiums.

While both sides may hype up or downplay the legal consequences of the ruling, the heart of the question is the legal effect of the arbitral ruling in international law. To be more specific, is the award legally binding? How could the decision of an arbitral tribunal be implemented in international law? Is the non-recognition and non-implementation of the decision of an arbitral tribunal equivalent to non-compliance with international law? These are questions that need to be addressed.

In general, once an arbitral award has been made, it is final and binding upon the parties. That is the reason why the mainstream international understanding, misdirected by the U.S., is that the South China Sea arbitral award is binding upon China. However, there is an exception to the rule. In certain circumstances the award itself may be regarded as a nullity. It is fairly generally accepted under international law that the excess of power may be treated as a nullity. That’s exactly the position taken by China: that the arbitral tribunal exercised jurisdiction ultra vires and any of its decisions have no legal effects. In particular, the disputes between China and Philippines are either sovereignty disputes over islands, which are not governed by the UNCLOS, or disputes concerning maritime delimitation, which are excluded by China through a 2006 declaration based on Article 298 of the Convention. However, those exceptional rules are fully understood only by a small group of legal experts, and the general public only knows general rules. This put the U.S. in a good position to hype up the binding force of the award as a general rule, while China has an uphill battle to explain to the international community why the award has no legal effects as an exceptional rule. The U.S. and its allies will surely make full use of this advantage to put consistent international pressure on China to abide by the award.

Even supposing an arbitral award is binding on both parties, how to enforce it is another issue. In general, the success of arbitration depends on the goodwill between the parties in actually enforcing the award. Unlike in a domestic legal system, which has a central government to enforce the law, there is no such world government above states to enforce international law. The only exceptional case lies with the International Court of Justice (ICJ). Under article 94 of the UN Charter, one party may have recourse to the Security Council, which may enforce the decisions. However, the present case was decided by a 1982 UNCLOS Annex VII arbitral tribunal and the decision could in no way be enforced by third parties. Under article 12 of the UNCLOS Annex VII, “Any controversy which may arise between the parties to the dispute as regards the interpretation or manner of implementation of the award may be submitted by either party for decision to the arbitral tribunal which made the award.” Also, “[a]ny such controversy may be submitted to another court or tribunal under article 287 by agreement of all the parties to the dispute.”

Finally, does the arbitration award per se amount to international law, so that the non-recognition and non-implementation of the award is equivalent to non-compliance with international law? It is common sense among international lawyers that, under article 38 of the Statute of the ICJ, the sources of international law are composed of international treaties, international customs, and general principles of law and judicial decisions can only be utilized as a subsidiary means for the determination of rules of law rather than as an actual source of law. However, the U.S. may again make use of the gap between the understanding shared by small group of legal experts and the general public’s misunderstanding of international law so as to label China’s non-recognition of the award as non-compliance with international law.

In fact, neither the U.S. nor the Philippines has much credibility in this regard. The U.S. is the least qualified state to criticize China on this point, as the U.S. is the only country that used veto power in the UN Security Council to prevent the enforcement of the ICJ decision in Nicaragua case. Notwithstanding this clear defiance of international judicial decisions, many U.S. politicians and scholars are echoing the same voice that China would dishonor international rule of law in the sense that China does not recognize the award. Even the Philippines has been inconsistent in its respect for international arbitration, holding in the present case that a arbitral tribunal’s decision in Southern Bluefin Tuna case was wrongly decided. It is questionable whether the Philippines’ dishonoring of an arbitral decision amounts to non-compliance of international law. While it is not meant to make a tu quoque argument here, the position of the U.S. shows a clear sign of a double standard.

For its part, the best approach for China to win this lawfare is to tell its side of the story regarding the general rule versus exceptional rule. There is still a long way to go for China to pierce the legal veil covering American political trickery.

Will Today’s Blockbuster South China Sea Award Save or Destroy UNCLOS Dispute Settlement?

by Julian Ku

I have been mildly obsessed with the dispute between the Philippines and China for over three years now. It touches on so many areas of my research interest: international courts, China, and the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea. So I am almost sad that the dispute, at least for legal purposes, finally ended today with the arbitral tribunal’s sweeping award in favor of the Philippines.

Since the beginning of the arbitration process, I have wondered what the impact of China’s boycott would be on the future viability of the UNCLOS system of dispute settlement. For the first two years of the dispute, I was skeptical that China would suffer any meaningful damage from defying the UNCLOS arbitral system. Thus, I wondered if, combined with Russia’s almost cavalier defiance of an ITLOS proceeding involving Greenpeace, the end result in this process would be a toothless UNCLOS dispute settlement process of little value or significance. This was one of the reasons I sharply criticized the Philippines for adopting a fruitless “lawfare” strategy.

Time will tell, but early reviews point to me being wrong. China is much more vulnerable to “shamefare” than I had imagined. The evidence for China’s vulnerability lies, I think, in the extraordinary over-the-top global public relations campaign to denigrate and delegitimize the award before it was even issued. If China thought the award would have little impact, it would not have dragooned its diplomatic service, its state-run media, and even its civil society into a huge, sometimes nasty PR effort against the award.

Still, the game must run its course. The key is how other nations not named the Philippines or the U.S. react to the award. If most key nations, including China’s regional neighbors, follow the line set out by the U.S. and call upon China to comply with the award, then China’s isolation on this issue will be significant.   The G-7 is expected to follow this path, and it is possible that Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia will do so as well. If South Korea, Australia, and India can also be brought on board, then China will have suffered a diplomatic as well as a legal defeat. Why? Because any aggressive Chinese action to respond to the award, such as by militarizing its artificial islands or even building new ones, will be framed as a further violation of China’s international obligations. China will have its own mini-Crimea crisis, and it will be hard for it to gain legitimacy for its actions.

On the other hand, no matter how many government press releases denounce China, it is hard to imagine China ever complying with the award. It can’t, even if it wanted to, since it has locked itself into a rigid public position against the award in front of the world and its own people. So the arbitral award will go unenforced and unimplemented for the foreseeable future. No matter how you slice it, an unenforced award is not a sign of a strong and effective legal system. UNCLOS dispute settlement can be ignored, not without cost, but certainly it can be ignored.

On balance, however, the UNCLOS system seems to have been strengthened by today’s ruling. The U.S. and other key countries seem to have rallied in support of it, and the tribunal’s findings seem to carry a fair amount of credibility with most governments. Indeed, the U.S. now seems to endorse the UNCLOS dispute settlement system with more vigor than one might expect for a non-party. It seems that UNCLOS dispute settlement will survive in a post-Philippines v. China world after all.

The South China Sea Arbitration is Here! And China Will Not Be Happy

by Julian Ku

The much-anticipated long awaited South China Sea Arbitration award on the merits is here!  It is a slam-dunk, complete, utter, massive, total legal victory for the Philippines on all counts (lots of metaphors here, none are quite sufficient). Essentially, the tribunal ruled in favor of almost all of the Philippines’ claims in the arbitration.  Perhaps the most headline friendly result: The Nine Dash Line has been ruled inconsistent with China’s obligations under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

I have been mostly reacting on twitter this morning, and I am working on some related posts here and elsewhere. This case brings to an end the long process initiated by the Philippines back in 2013 (links to my discussion of them are below).  We will be discussing and debating the impact of this award for a while.

Is Russia’s Boycott of an Arbitration Brought Under Ukraine-Russia Bilateral Investment Treaty a Sign of a Trend?

by Julian Ku

When a country is brought to arbitration under a treaty, it often challenges the jurisdiction of that arbitral tribunal in arguments before that tribunal. But in recent years, we’ve seen several examples of countries that have simply chosen to “boycott” or not participate in the arbitral hearings whatsoever.

China adopted this approach in its ongoing United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) arbitration with the Philippines (which it recently confirmed again this past December). Russia also followed this strategy by simply not showing up at the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea ITLOS provisional measures hearing related to its seizure of the Greenpeace vessel Arctic Sunrise.  And Russia has recently confirmed that it will adopt this “non-participation” approach with respect to a recent arbitration brought by a Ukrainian business alleging expropriation of its ownership of an airport in Crimea.

Three cases do not make a trend, but observers of international law and adjudication should take notice nonetheless.  Will “non-participation” prove a viable strategy for states (as opposed to actually making legal arguments against jurisdiction)?  Granted, as far as I can tell, neither China nor Russia have very strong arguments against jurisdiction in the cases above.  So is it better to simply walk away?  If the state has no intention of complying with a negative award, it might make rational sense to simply avoid the process altogether.  Will other states try this approach?


China Launches Op-Ed Rebuttal to Philippines’ Arbitration Case

by Julian Ku

The UNCLOS Arbitral Tribunal formed to consider the dispute between the Philippines and China gave China until January 1 to file a response to the arguments made by the Philippines at its most recent merits hearing.  China had not showed up at any of the hearings, nor has it submitted any official written arguments to the Tribunal.   I don’t know if China will file any submissions (don’t hold your breath), but its state-run flagship The People’s Daily has launched an op-ed fusillade this week attacking the Philippines. Perhaps, this is China’s response to the arguments made at the arbitral hearing.

The first editorial, “Grandstanding Cannot Cover Up Illegal Moves”, is focused on vilifying the Philippines’ for bringing this arbitration, and the remarks of its foreign minister Albert F. del Rosario. The criticism is mostly non-legal, accusing Mr. del Rosario of bad faith, speaking untruths, and being an all-around bad guy.  But the oped does contain the germ of a legal argument justifying China’s defiance of the UNCLOS tribunal:

State sovereignty is a core principle in contemporary international law. No force is above a sovereign state. No country, organization or individual could expect China to stand by and allow its interests to be harmed. Here is a piece of advice for people like Mr. del Rosario: Don’t misread the situation. The Chinese government and people are adamant about safeguarding China’s rights and interests in the South China Sea. All calculating moves against that would end up in failure.

The second editorial, China’s Sovereignty over the South China Sea Islands Brooks No Denial, offers more of a legal and factual argument.  Interestingly, the editorial relies heavily on the legal force of the 1943 Cairo Declaration and the 1945 Potsdam Declaration as the basis for China’s South China Sea claims over the disputed Spratly/Nansha Islands.  The theory here is that the Spratly/Nansha islands belonged to China, and that Japan forcibly occupied them during WWII.  Cairo and Potsdam required Japan to return all “stolen” territories, ergo, the South China Sea islands go back to China.

The Philippines (apparently) argued at the merits hearing that the Nansha Islands were “terra nullius” and were not included in the “stolen” territories that Japan had to return to China.  Moreover, the Philippines argued that the Cairo and Potsdam Declarations were not legally binding.

China responds with a factual claim (China has always had sovereignty over the islands) as well as legal claim (the Cairo and Potsdam Declarations are legally binding). This latter argument is not precisely accurate, although it is true that Japan promised to comply with Potsdam in its surrender.  But none of this changes the fact that neither Cairo nor Potsdam say anything about the Spratlys/Nansha specifically, and seem a weak legal basis for China’s claims to those islands.

In any event, the editorial is largely rhetorical rather than legal. It concludes by rallying the Chinese people against mysterious international forces threatening their sovereignty:

[T]he determination of the Chinese people to safeguard its territorial integrity is as firm as a rock. Only the Chinese people have the final say when it comes to China’s territory. Any attempt to negate China’s sovereignty, rights and interests through a so-called “arbitration award” will be nothing but wishful thinking, just like flowers in a mirror and reflection of the moon in water. By going back on its own words and confusing the concepts for the purpose of territorial expansion, the Philippines will only end up bringing disgrace on itself.

Gotta love the metaphors, although I doubt very much the Arbitral Tribunal will be in any way moved by them.

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.