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

by Julian Ku

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will Ratifying UNCLOS Help the U.S. Manage China? I Doubt It

by Julian Ku

A subcommittee of the  U.S. House of Representatives’ Foreign Affairs Committee held a much-needed hearing to educate themselves on China’s recent activity in the East and South China Seas.  Professor Peter Dutton of the Naval War College, along with two other experts on Asian affairs, gave interesting and useful testimony on the nature of China’s maritime disputes with Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam, and other Asian countries.

There is a lot of interesting stuff here, but my attention was particularly caught by Professor Dutton’s recommendation (seconded by Bonnie Glaeser of the Center for Strategic and International Studies) that the U.S. ratify the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) as part of a multifaceted strategy to manage China’s sort-of-aggressive strategy to expand its power and influence in the region.  Here is Professor Dutton’s argument:

Accordingly, to ensure its future position in East Asia, the United States should take specific actions to defend the international legal architecture pertaining to the maritime and aerial commons. Acceding to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and once again exercising direct leadership over the development of its rules and norms is the first and most critical step. The Department of State should also re-energize its Limits in the Seas series to publicly and repeatedly reinforce international law related to sea and airspace. A good place to begin the new series would be with a detailed assessment of why international law explicitly rejects China’s U-shaped line in the South China Sea as the basis for Chinese jurisdiction there. Others could be written to describe why China’s East China Sea continental shelf claim misapplies international law and why China’s ADIZ unlawfully asserts jurisdiction in the airspace. My sense is that East Asian states, indeed many states around the world, are desperate for active American leadership over the norms and laws that govern legitimate international action.

I understand the force of this argument. The U.S. already adheres the key principles in UNCLOS, so joining UNCLOS will allow the U.S. to push back more effectively against China’s aggressive and expansionary activities.

But is there really any evidence that formal accession would change China’s view of the U.S. position on UNCLOS issues?  China is already a member of UNCLOS and other countries (like Japan and the Philippines) are also members of UNCLOS. But I don’t think UNCLOS has really bolstered their effectiveness in pushing back against China.  Moreover, as Professor Dutton explains, China has a radically different interpretation of its authority to regulate foreign ships and aircraft in its Exclusive Economic Zone under UNCLOS.  How will joining UNCLOS help the U.S. change China’s interpretation of UNCLOS?

As a practical matter, UNCLOS does have a way of compelling member states to conform their interpretations: mandatory dispute settlement in the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea or in Annex VII arbitration.  But as China and Russia have demonstrated in recent years, these mechanisms are not likely to be a serious constraint, especially on questions that touch sovereignty (which is how China frames most of its activities).  I suppose if the U.S. joins UNCLOS, and subjects itself to UNCLOS dispute settlement, that might make a difference.  But I don’t think it would be a very large one (after all, Japan, China, and the Philippines are all already subject to UNCLOS dispute settlement, which has accomplished little so far).

I should add that the U.S. joining UNCLOS is hardly the most prominent of Professor Dutton’s recommendations.  His (and his co-panelists) had lots of good strategic policy recommendations.  I think the law may be important here, but I am skeptical that it will be as effective as he (and many analysts) are hoping.

Did the U.S. Set a Precedent for the China/Russia Boycott of UNCLOS Arbitration? Sure! But So What?

by Julian Ku

Wim Muller, an associate fellow in international law at Chatham House, takes issue with my observation that China’s rejection of Annex VII UNCLOS Arbitration may have influenced Russia’s similar rejection of UNCLOS proceedings in the Greenpeace arbitration.  Other commenters take issue with my further claim that Russia’s rejection is another “body blow” to ITLOS dispute settlement. I offer my (“typically tendentious”) response below.

Muller’s criticism, I believe, is mostly just a misunderstanding of my position.  I don’t disagree that the U.S. and other countries have walked away from binding international dispute settlement and this could have set a precedent here.  But my point is narrower:  China and Russia are, as far as I know, the first states ever to reject participation in UNCLOS dispute settlement, and their actions are a serious challenge to the future of UNCLOS dispute settlement, which is supposed to be a key and integral part of the UNCLOS system. Thus, although UNCLOS dispute settlement is not exactly a model of success, it has never before suffered the spectacle of two member states rejecting its tribunals’ jurisdictions (within the same calendar year no less).  I would be surprised if the U.S. example from 1984  was more relevant to Russia’s decision than China’s decision from February of this year.  I don’t think any UNCLOS state has ever rejected the jurisdiction of the ITLOS with respect to provisional measures or “prompt release” procedures.  Indeed, it is worth noting that Russia has not only availed itself of the “prompt release” procedure on one occasion, but it has also submitted to ITLOS “prompt release” jurisdiction in two prior cases.  To be sure, it did not contest jurisdiction in those cases and neither involved similar facts.  But it is striking that Russia has gone from active UNCLOS dispute settlement player to effective boycotter.

UNCLOS dispute settlement is not “voluntary.” It is a system of compulsory  and binding dispute settlement.  Indeed, UNCLOS itself makes clear in Art. 288(4) that UNCLOS tribunals have the power to determine their own jurisdiction.  By refusing to participate in UNCLOS dispute settlement based on their own unilateral claims about jurisdiction, China and Russia are essentially telling the tribunal that they will not accept jurisdiction, no matter what the tribunal determines about jurisdiction, and despite the plain authority those tribunals hold under Art. 288(4).  It may not be a “body blow” but it is not exactly a resounding vote of confidence in UNCLOS dispute settlement either.

Now, Muller seems to be arguing

Shocker! Russia Walks Away from UNCLOS Arbitration and Will Ignore Netherlands Petition Over Greenpeace Detentions*

by Julian Ku

[Update below] It looks like China has started a trend. In a surprising statement (at least to me), Russia has announced it will not participate in the ITLOS arbitration brought by the Netherlands related to the detention of Greenpeace activists last month.

“The Russian side has informed the Netherlands and the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea that it does not accept the arbitration procedure in the Arctic Sunrise case, and is not planning to take part in the tribunals,” the ministry said in a statement Wednesday, adding Moscow is still “open to the settlement” of the case. The statement did not elaborate.

The ministry insisted Russia is not obliged to recognize the authority of the maritime tribunal, saying the Russian government does not have to participate in disputes that concern “sovereign rights” and “jurisdiction.”

Hmm. This formulation sounds familiar somehow.  Actually, Russia is citing its UNCLOS declaration, which excludes dispute settlement under UNCLOS “concerning law-enforcement activities in regard to the exercise of sovereign rights or jurisdiction.” But it echoes the Chinese objection as well.

I had written a post on the Netherlands memorial in support of its action against Russia in the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea seeking “provisional measures”, but I forgot to publish it. Which is just as well.  Because it looks like Russia is going to ignore whatever arbitration proceedings are constituted under Annex VII (following the Chinese example).  I can’t tell from this report, but it may be that Russia may ignore the ITLOS “provisional measures” hearing that is likely to be scheduled soon as well.

As Greenpeace’s attorneys rightly point out, ““If the Russian Federation believes the Tribunal lacks jurisdiction, the normal and proper thing to do would be to raise this at the hearing,”  This would apply to China and the Philippines as well.  If Russia does simply walk away, this is another body blow to the dispute settlement under the UNCLOS system, especially considering that Russia has accepted the jurisdiction of the ITLOS in past disputes.

*After this post went up, I noticed that Russia has also dropped the piracy charges against the Greenpeace activists, charging them now with hooliganism. This doesn’t seem to affect their position on ITLOS arbitration, though. But perhaps settlement will be easier?

Russia Charges Greenpeace Protesters with Piracy, When Will the Netherlands File Its ITLOS Action?

by Julian Ku

I’m late to this story, which has already outraged Greenpeace and other supporters worldwide.

Greenpeace activists who were seized while protesting against Arctic oil drilling face up to 15 years in a Russian jail after being formally charged with piracy.

The 14 charged include four British nationals. Kieron Bryan, a freelance videographer, and the activists Alexandra Harris, Philip Ball and Anthony Perrett were all accused of “piracy as part of an organised group”. The offence carries a prison sentence of between 10 and 15 years.

Altogether there are 30 activists from 18 different countries being held in jails in the Russian port of Murmansk. They were travelling aboard the Arctic Sunrise, a Greenpeace ship that last month mounted a protest against the Prirazlomnaya oil rig. The drilling platform, in the Pechora Sea, is operated by the Russian energy group Gazprom. As two activists tried to scale it, Russian border guards descended on to the boat from helicopters and escorted it back to Murmansk with those on board kept under armed guard.

Professor Eugene Kontorovich has been first out of the box in the U.S. blogosphere, denouncing the piracy charges as “groundless.”  Based on the facts as alleged, I think he is right. Even if the Greenpeace activists were pursuing a “private end,” scaling an oil rig doesn’t seem to satisfy the “ship” requirement in UNCLOS (to which Russia is a signatory by the way).

So assuming Eugene is right (which is always a safe bet), are there any international legal remedies for groundless piracy charges?  In fact, Russia has recognized the competence of the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) under UNCLOS Art. 292 “in matters relating to the prompt release of detained vessels and crews.”

So it seems that the Netherlands (since the Greenpeace ship was Dutch-flagged) should be able to bring an action under Article 292 arguing that the detention of the Greenpeace ship was not in compliance with UNCLOS (and citing Eugene’s point about how this isn’t piracy). Article 292 allows the Netherlands (the flag state) to send the question of the legality of the detention to ITLOS 10 days from the time of the detention. ITLOS seems to have the authority to determine whether there should be a release, and should have the authority to order Russia to release the vessel and crew upon posting of a bond.

I see no legal obstacle to such a Dutch action, and I think the 10 days waiting period has run.  The Dutch Government has apparently demanded the release of the ship and crew, and has sent consular officials to see the detained activists.  I assume the next step is a legal action at ITLOS. They might as well do this now, since any ITLOS hearing will take another 15 days at lest.

It is worth noting that Russia has already been subject to an Art. 292 ITLOS proceeding before, in the 2007 incident involving 2 Japanese fishing vessels.  ITLOS ordered the release of the one of the vessels upon posting of a 10 million rouble bond, and Russia complied with this order within 10 days. I am curious whether Greenpeace would be willing to post a bond here, or whether it could be so easily settled.  Still, with this precedent,  I would expect an ITLOS filing any day now.

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.

Is the Philippines Arbitration Claim Against China “Bizarre” and “Futile”?

by Julian Ku

As this Voice of America report notes, the Philippine government is determined to forge ahead with its UNCLOS arbitration, even though China is refusing to participate in the arbitration. This seems to be a sensible strategy, at least from a legal point of view, because it is plainly within its legal rights to do so.

But would a one-party arbitration be futile?  The VOA quotes Prof. Myron Nordquist of UVA on this point:

But how would one-party arbitration work, exactly? Professor Myron Nordquist of the Center for Oceans Law and Policy at the University of Virginia calls the situation “quite bizarre.”

“For one thing, it is doomed to failure because if the party won’t consent to the arbitration there is then no enforcement,” said Nordquist. “How would they expect a country that didn’t want to have a dispute settled by third parties to feel in any sense bound by a decision where they didn’t even participate?”

I agree the situation is odd, but it is not unprecedented.  The Annex VII provisions clearly contemplate situations where one party refuses to appoint an arbitrator by giving the power to the President of ITLOS to appoint the rest of the tribunal.  Moreover, general international arbitral practice is to allow arbitrations to proceed even when one party (like China) boycotts the whole proceeding. (See Gary Born, International Commercial Arbitration, at 449-50). In such cases, the tribunal typically continues to give notice to the boycotting party, and will reach a reasoned award based on its own assessment of the law and facts. It does not typically simply accept the participating party’s submissions as true.

Moreover, I take issue with Professor Nordquist’s conclusion that the arbitration is “doomed to failure because if the party won’t consent to the arbitration there is then no enforcement.”  His statement embeds a variety of (understandable) misunderstandings about the nature of Annex VII arbitration.

First of all, let’s be clear.  China has already consented to Annex VII arbitration, at least with respect to allowing a tribunal to be constituted and to determine whether it has jurisdiction in a dispute. China consented when it acceded to UNCLOS. All China has done so far is refuse to appoint an arbitrator.

Second, as any private international commercial arbitrator could tell you, consent to an arbitration does not in any way guarantee enforcement.  Indeed, in private commercial arbitrations, judicial enforcement proceedings are common and necessary to force parties to comply with arbitral awards.

To put this another way, if China had participated in the arbitration by appointing an arbitrator, I don’t think it would have affected its likelihood of complying with any arbitral award.  UNCLOS does not have any sanctions regime akin to, say the Dispute Settlement Understanding of the WTO, so China would not face any formal sanctions if it failed to comply with an arbitral award.

All of this is a long way of saying, the decision by the Philippines to continue with the arbitration (sans China) is not really any more futile than if China had fully participated.  In both situations, China would likely not have complied  with any unfavorable award.  Any award is only going to be useful to rally other countries to the Philippines’ side as well as in marshaling global public opinion to its cause (as Prof. Nordquist does note).  Indeed, it seems that the Philippines’ American lawyer is banking on the negative reputational effects of this case eventually pushing China to come around to participate in the arbitration. (FWIW, I am skeptical that the Chinese government can be manipulated this way, especially since domestic public opinion in China leans in the opposite direction.)

For this to work, though, the Philippines has got to try to educate the global media more effectively. Headlines from USA Today, for instance, describing China as rejecting “UN Mediation” only make things murkier for them.  China is going to play the “we-just-want-to-negotiate-unlike-you-troublesome-Filipinos” card.  The Philippines needs to play the “we-are-just-asking-for-the-arbitration-that-you-consented-to” card.  So far, they are not doing all that well.