Post #122: China’s Bad Day in Court

As had been widely expected, the Permanent Court of Arbitration under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) ruled on July 12 in favor of the Philippines’ suit to declare Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea (SCS) illegal.*  On every particular, the court found that China’s claims—defined by the so-called “nine-dash line”— to an expansive maritime zone and its undersea resources are illegal, and therefore that its land reclamation and construction projects in the islands encroach on the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.  Though the ruling did not extend to the issue of sovereignty over the SCS islands, it clarified the boundary dispute.  The ruling also found China guilty of harming the marine environment by building artificial islands, of illegally interfering with Filipinos’ fishing  and oil exploration, and “aggravating” the dispute with the Philippines by its construction activities.  (Text of the ruling is at

China had determined its response many months ago.  The foreign ministry declared the arbitration court’s decision “null and void and without binding force.”  The statement repeated China’s sovereignty claims over the SCS islands.  It asserted that China’s stance is consistent with international law, a view that hardly squares with its denial of the arbitration court’s jurisdiction, much less its decision.  China is committed to direct negotiations with the interested parties and to peaceful settlement of disputes, the statement says; but “regarding territorial issues and maritime delimitation disputes, China does not accept any means of third party dispute settlement or any solution imposed on China” (Xinhua, July 12, 2016, “Full Statement.”)

In all, it was a bad day in court for the People’s Republic.  Though it promises not to abide by the ruling, meaning China will continue to militarize the disputed islands and defend its “core interests” there—its navy held its first live-fire exercises in the SCS the day before the court’s decision—the spotlight is on China’s claim to be a “responsible great power.”  President Xi Jinping had indicated in 2014 that China needed to have “its own great-power foreign policy with special characteristics,” which he called “six persistents” (liuge jianchi).  These principles supposedly would create a “new type of international relations,” and included ideas such as “cooperation and win-win,” a major voice for developing countries, and defense of international justice.  But the six persistents also included “never abandoning our legitimate rights and interests” (zhengdang quanyi), which all too often is pretext for acting in ways directly opposed to international responsibility.  (See

China’s leaders surely expected that signing and ratifying the UNCLOS would be advantageous to the country.  It would demonstrate China’s commitment to international agreements, show China’s respect for the maritime rights of others (especially its Southeast Asia neighbors) as well as legitimize its own rights, and facilitate undersea exploration for resources.  But agreements don’t always turn out as expected.  Now that the law has turned against it, the Chinese suddenly seek to disqualify the UNCLOS court and reinterpret the convention’s intent.  Not many governments are likely to support such backsliding.

The US, though having always supported the Philippines’ position, has nothing to cheer about here.  First, the US has neither signed nor ratified the UNCLOS, and thus is in a weak position to argue on its behalf or appeal to international law and a “rules-based system’ when governments violate either (such as Russia’s seizure of Crimea).  Second, like China, the US has always taken a dim view of international law when “national interests” are at stake.  Whether with regard to the International Court of Justice or any other international court, the US has never accepted the idea of compulsory jurisdiction, and in fact has often behaved as though it is exempt from laws and rules.  Thus, also like China, US responsibility as a great power does not consistently embrace respect for and adherence to international treaties and conventions, international legal bodies (such as the International Criminal Court), or international legal norms (such as those regarding nonintervention, genocide, and torture).  (See  Both the US and China, in a word, talk the talk but don’t walk the walk—unless law serves its policy.

And that is the real lesson here—the irresponsibility of great powers, their self-serving approach to international law, and the limited capacity of legal institutions to constrain their behavior.  Perhaps in the SCS case China and the Philippines, now under a new president, will find their way back to the negotiating table and work out a deal that skirts the always-difficult sovereignty issue.  (See my last post on the subject:  That would be fine; but it would not address the fundamental problem of how law-abiding behavior can be promoted and enforced in an often anarchic world.

*The court, whose work on the SCS case began in 2013, is composed of justices from Ghana, Poland, Netherlands, France, and Germany.





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  1. One of the positive things which came out of the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling is that the court made clear the distinction between an “island”, meriting a claim for an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), and a “rock”, which does not. There are a number of “islands” in the Pacific (Howland, Baker, Jarvis, Palmyra, Johnston, Wake) around which the US claims EEZs but which would be classified as “rocks” under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Vice President Biden has said ““We expect China to play by the same rules as everyone else.” Wouldn’t it be a nice and productive gesture on our part if we relinquished these claims without having to be dragged into court?

  2. I think a major problem with your analysis is that the UN no longer has standing as an honest arbitrator, if it ever did. Beyond that, of course these territorial issues are issues that have to be negotiated, not arbitrated. You seem to want to depict China as the aggressor, but the US has been the aggressor in this conflict, sticking its nose provocatively into an issue thousands of miles from home, pushing China into a more confrontational stance. The notion that the US has as much interest as China in waters off China’s shores is gonzo bizarre, yet this crazy notion seems to be the basis of US policy (and such arrogance is really the hallmark of US foreign policy, so there is really a swarm of such hot trigger issues, together creating a monstrously dangerous global situation).

    I believe that if the US would but out, for the most part, the issues involved could be settled reasonably amicably.

    1. Kindly read any of my previous posts on this subject, which actually are in agreement with your position on the US role. Post #122 was only about the court decision and the rule of law. However, I will add that China is hardly innocent of “arrogance” when it comes to the South China Sea dispute. Its assertive position precedes US intervention, as the Vietnamese and Filipinos can well attest.

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