Air Force General Counsel Blog The chief legal officer and chief ethics official of the Department of the Air Force

25Jan/130

Arbitration of the South China Sea Dispute?

Julian Ku of Hofstra Law School has recently had a very interesting set of posts at Opinio Juris about recent efforts by the Government of the Philippines to force China to arbitrate its claims to the South China Sea under the U.N. Convention for the Law of the Sea.  First, Ku posted about the Philippine filing:

In a potentially huge development, the Government of the Philippines announced earlier today that it has filed for arbitrationwith China under the UN Convention for the Law of the Sea. .  .  .According to the Philippines Foreign Minister, here are the main claims:

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.

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.

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.

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.

According to Ku, Philippines has a serious jurisdictional hurtle, but there were good strategic reasons to make the filing:

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.

Read this post here.

 Next, Ku posted about the Chinese response:

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”.

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.

Read it all here.  What do you think?  Is this a game changer?  How will China respond? 

Charles A. Blanchard
General Counsel
United States Air Force