Tag Archives: international law

A Sign of the Times: China’s Recent Actions and the Undermining of Global Rules

By Tuan N. Pham

More Chinese assertiveness and unilateralism are coming. In January, this author’s article in a separate publication assessed strategic actions that Beijing will probably undertake in 2018; and forecasted that China will likely further expand its global power and influence through the ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), expansive military build-up and modernization, assertive foreign policy, and forceful public diplomacy. Recently, three worrying developments have emerged that oblige the United States to further challenge China to become a more responsible global stakeholder that contributes positively to the international system. Otherwise, passivity and acquiescence undermine the new U.S. National Security Strategy; reinforce Beijing’s growing belief that Washington is a declining power; and may further embolden China – a self-perceived rising power – to execute unchallenged and unhindered its strategic roadmap (grand strategy) for national rejuvenation (the Chinese Dream). 

Near-Arctic State

On January 26, Beijing followed up last year’s policy paper “Vision for Maritime Cooperation Under the BRI” that outlined its ambitious plan to advance its developing global sea corridors (blue economic passages connected to the greater Belt and Road network) – with its first white paper on the Arctic. The white paper boldly proclaimed China’s strategic intent to actively partake in Arctic activities as a “near-Arctic state.” Activities include but are not limited to the development of Arctic shipping routes (Polar Silk Road); exploration for and exploitation of oil, gas, mineral, and other material resources; utilization and conservation of fisheries; and promotion of Arctic tourism.     

Beijing rationalizes and justifies this expansive political, economic, and legal stance as “the natural conditions of the Arctic and their changes have a direct impact on China’s climate system and ecological environment, and, in turn, on its economic interests in agriculture, forestry, fishery, marine industry, and other sectors.” In other words, China stakes its tenuous Arctic claims on geographic proximity; effects of climate change on the country; expanding cross-regional diplomacy with extant Arctic states; and the broad legal position that although non-Arctic countries are not in a position to claim “territorial sovereignty”, they do have the right to engage in scientific research, navigation, and economic activities. And while vaguely underscoring that it will respect and comply with international law like the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in a “lawful and rational matter”, Beijing was quite explicit and emphatic in the white paper that it will use Arctic resources to “pursue its own national interests.”

There is no legal or international definition of “near-Arctic state.” China is the sole originator of the term. Beijing is clearly attempting to inject itself into the substance of Arctic dialogue and convince others to accept the self-aggrandizing and self-serving term. Furthermore, as noted by Grant Newsham, the phrase itself is a representative exemplification of how China incrementally and quietly builds concepts, principles, vocabulary, and finally justification for pursuing its national interests and global ambitions. Consider the following evolution that is typical of how key elements of China’s strategic lexicon come to the fore like “near-Artic state and the South China Sea (SCS) has been part of China since ancient times”:

Step 1 – Term appears in an obscure Chinese academic journal
Step 2 – Term appears in a regional Chinese newspaper
Step 3 – Term is used at a Chinese national conference or seminar
Step 4 – Term is used in Chinese authoritative media
Step 5 – Term is used at international conferences and academic exchanges held in China
Step 6 – China frequently refers to the term in foreign media and at international conferences
Step 7 – China issues a policy white paper stating its positions, implied rights, and an implied threat to defend those rights
Step 8 – China maintains that this has always been Beijing’s policy

 Beijing’s official policy positions on Antarctica are less clear and coherent, and appear to be still evolving. The closest sort of policy statement was made last year by China’s State Oceanic Administration when it issued a report (pseudo white paper) entitled “China’s Antarctic Activities (Antarctic Business in China).” The report detailed many of Beijing’s scientific activities in the southernmost continent, and vaguely outlined China’s Antarctic strategy and agenda with few specifics. All in all, Beijing doesn’t have a formal claim over Antarctic territory (and the Antarctic Treaty forbids any new claims), but nonetheless, China has incrementally expanded its presence and operations over the years. The Chinese government currently spends more than any other Antarctic state on new infrastructure such as bases, planes, and icebreakers. The expanding presence in Antarctica is embraced by Beijing as a way and means to build the necessary physical fundamentals for China’s Antarctic resource and governance rights.  

South “China” Sea

On February 5, released imagery of the Spratly archipelago suggests that China has almost completely transformed their seven occupied reefs – disputed by the other claimants – into substantial Chinese military outposts, in a bid to dominate the contested waters and despite a 2002 agreement with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) not to change any geographic features in the SCS. At the same time, Beijing has softened the provocative edges of its aggressive militarization with generous pledges of investments to the other claimants and promising talks of an ASEAN framework for negotiating a code of conduct (CoC) for the management of contested claims in the strategic waterway. However, it is becoming increasingly apparent that China is determined to finish its militarization and then present the other claimants with a fait d’accompli before sitting down to negotiate the CoC.

The photographs show that Beijing has developed 72 acres in the SCS in 2017 and over 3200 acres in the past four years; and redirected its efforts from dredging and reclaiming land to building infrastructure (airstrips, helipads, radar and communications facilities, control towers, hangars, etc.) necessary for future deployment of aircraft to project Chinese power across the shipping routes through which trillions of dollars of global trade flows each year. On February 8, China’s Ministry of Defense announced that it recently sent advanced Su-35 fighter aircraft to take part in a joint combat patrol over the SCS.

An aerial view of the Fiery Cross Reef, now a 2.8 sq km artificial island. (Photo: CCTV)

At the end of the day, these latest images will not change Beijing’s agenda and plans for the SCS. They do however provide a revealing glimpse of what is happening now and what may happen in the near future on these disputed and contested geographic features (rocks and reefs) – and it sure does not look benign and benevolent as China claims.     

At the 54th Munich Security Conference from February 16-18, the Chinese delegation participated in an open panel discussion on the SCS and took the opportunity to publicly refute the prevailing conventional interpretation of international maritime law. They troublingly stated for the first known time in an international forum that “the problem now is that some countries unilaterally and wrongly interpreted the freedom of navigation of UNCLOS as the freedom of military operations, which is not the principle set by the UNCLOS.” This may be that long-anticipated policy outgrowth from the brazen militarization of the SCS and the latest regression of the previous legal and diplomatic position that “all countries have unimpeded access to navigation and flight activities in the SCS.” Now that China has the supposed ways and means to secure the strategic lines of communication, Beijing may start incrementally restricting military ships and aircraft operating in its perceived backyard, and then slowly and quietly expand to commercial ships and aircraft transiting the strategic waterway. If so, this will be increasingly problematic as the People’s Liberation Army Navy continues to operate in distant waters and in proximity to other nations’ coastlines. China will then have no choice but to eventually address the legal and diplomatic inconsistency between policy and operations – and either pragmatically adjust its policy or continue to assert its untenable authority to regulate military activities in its claimed exclusive economic zones, in effect a policy of “do as I say, not do as I do.”

In the public diplomacy domain, Beijing is advancing the narrative that Washington no longer dominates the SCS, is to blame for Chinese militarization of the SCS, and is destabilizing the SCS with more provocative moves. On January 22, the Global Times (subsidiary of the People’s Liberation Army’s Daily) published an op-ed article cautioning American policymakers to not be too confident about the U.S. role in the SCS nor too idealistic about how much ASEAN nations will support U.S. policy. Consider the following passage: “For ASEAN countries, it’s much more important to avoid conflicts with Beijing than obtain small favors from Washington. Times are gone when the United States played a predominant role in the SCS. China has exercised restraint against U.S. provocations in the SCS, but there are limits. If the U.S. doesn’t stop its provocations, China will militarize the islands sooner or later. Then Washington will be left with no countermeasure options and suffer complete humiliation.” On February 25, the same state-owned media outlet wrote that “China should install more military facilities, such as radar, aircraft, and more coastguard vessels in the SCS to cope with provocative moves by the United States”; and predicted that the “Sino-U.S. relations will see more disputes this year which will not be limited to SCS, as the United States tries to deal with a rising China.”

On January 17, USS Hopper (DDG-70) conducted a freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) during which it passed within 12nm of Scarborough Shoal. This was the fifth U.S. naval operation in the last six months to challenge China’s excessive maritime claims in the SCS. The Chinese media largely portrayed the operation as the latest in a series of recent U.S. actions intended to signal a new policy shift consistent with the new muscular U.S. National Security Strategy and U.S. National Defense Strategy and reflective of growing U.S. misgivings over China’s rise. The Chinese media is also increasingly depicting Beijing as having the upper hand in the SCS at the expense of rival Washington; and that U.S. FONOPs are now pointless since China has multiple options to effectively respond and there’s very little the United States can do about it.

Sharp Power (Influence Operations) Growing Sharper

In late-January, African Union (AU) officials accused Beijing of electronically bugging its Chinese-built headquarters building, hacking the computer systems, downloading confidential information, and sending the data back to servers in China. A claim that Beijing vehemently denies, calling the investigative report by the Le Monde “ridiculous, preposterous, and groundless…intended to put pressure on relations between Beijing and the African continent.” The fact that the alleged hack remained undisclosed for a year after discovery and the AU publicly refuted the allegation as Western propaganda speaks to China’s dominant relationships with the African states. During an official visit to Beijing shortly after the report’s release, the Chairman of the AU Commission Moussa Faki Mahamat stated “AU is an international political organization that doesn’t process secret defense dossiers…AU is an administration and I don’t see what interest there is to China to offer up a building of this type and then to spy.” Not surprisingly, Fakit received assurances from his Chinese counterpart afterwards on five key areas of future AU-China cooperation – capacity building, infrastructure construction, peace and security, public health and disease prevention, and tourism and aviation.

African Union Conference Center (Andrew Moore via Wikimedia Commons)

The suspected hack underscores the high risk that African nations take in allowing Chinese information technology companies such prominent roles in developing their nascent telecommunications backbones. The AU has since put new cybersecurity measures in place, and predictably declined Beijing’s offer to configure its new servers. Additionally, if the report is true, more than just the AU may have been compromised. Other government buildings were constructed by China throughout the African continent. Beijing signed lucrative contracts to build government buildings in Zimbabwe, Republic of Congo, Egypt, Malawi, Seychelles, Guinea-Bissau, Lesotho, and Sierra Leone.

On January 23, President Xi Jinping presided over a Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leading group meeting to discuss how better to deepen the overall reform of the central government. He emphasized that 2018 will be the first year to implement the spirit of last year’s 19th National Party Congress and the 40th anniversary of China’s opening up to the West and integration into the global economy. The meeting reviewed and approved several resolutions (policy documents) to include the “Guiding Opinions on Promoting the Reform and Development of Confucius Institute.” The new policy synchronized the promotion of reform and development of the Confucius Institute; and directed both to focus on the “building of a powerful socialist country with Chinese characteristics, serving Beijing’s major powers diplomacy with Chinese characteristics, deepening the reform and innovation, improving the institutional mechanisms, optimizing the distribution structure, strengthening the building efforts, and improving the quality of education” – so as to let the latter (Confucius Institute) become an important force of communication between China and foreign countries.

The seemingly benign and benevolent Confucius Institute is quite controversial, and is now receiving greater scrutiny within the various host countries for covertly influencing public opinions in advancement of Chinese national interests. In the United States, FBI Director Christopher Wray announced on February 23 that his agency is taking “investigative steps” regarding the Confucius Institutes, which operate at more than 100 American colleges and universities. These Chinese government-funded centers allegedly teach a whitewashed version of China, and serve as outposts of Beijing’s overseas intelligence network.

On February 17, Xi issued a directive to cultivate greater support amongst the estimated 60 million-strong Chinese diaspora. He called for “closely uniting” with overseas Chinese in support of the Chinese Dream, as part of the greater efforts and activities of the United Front – a CCP organization designed to build broad-based domestic and international political coalitions to achieve party objectives. He stressed that “to realize the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, we must work together with our sons and daughters at home and abroad…It is an important task for the party and the state to unite the vast number of overseas Chinese and returned overseas Chinese and their families in the country and play their positive role in the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” Ultimately, he hopes these overseas Chinese will collectively cooperate to counter political foes of the CCP, advance the party’s political agenda, and help realize broader Chinese geo-economic ambitions such as the BRI.


The aforementioned troubling and destabilizing developments egregiously challenge the rules-based global order and U.S. global influence. Like China’s illegal seizure of Scarborough Shoal in 2012 and Beijing’s blatant disregard for the landmark ruling by the International Tribunal of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in 2016, they further erode the trust and confidence in the international rule of law (and norms) and undermine America’s traditional role as the guarantor of the global economy and provider of regional security, stability, and leadership. If the international community and the United States do not push back now, Beijing may become even more emboldened and accelerate the pace of its deliberate march toward regional and global preeminence unchallenged and unhindered. 

Tuan Pham has extensive experience in the Indo-Pacific, and is widely published in national security affairs and international relations. The views expressed therein are his own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Government.

Featured Image: Chinese President Xi Jinping addresses the annual high-level general debate of the 70th session of the United Nations General Assembly at the UN headquarters in New York, the United States, Sept. 28, 2015. (Xinhua/Pang Xinglei)

South China Sea: International Arbitration moves forward as PAC rules on Jurisdiction

By Alex Calvo

Introduction: the Philippines’ International Arbitration Case moves Forward

Despite Beijing’s refusal to take part in the proceedings, on 29 October the Court of Permanent Arbitration (PCA) issued a ruling on jurisdiction and admissibility of the UNCLOS arbitration case launched by the Philippines against China. The Court unanimously decided that it had jurisdiction concerning seven of the fifteen claims put forward by Manila, with a decision on a further seven to be reached when considering their merits. The ruling by the PAC is thus a major victory for Manila and maritime democracies, since China’s view that the Philippines had promised to pursue only negotiations, and her assertion that no decision could be taken on maritime zones until delimitation had taken place, were rejected. While the decision on the merits of the case will have to wait until at least next year, and a ruling in favor of Manila does not guarantee in and by itself that Beijing will comply, this is nevertheless a major step forward for the notion that it is right plus might and not just might in isolation, which will determine the future of this vital sea.

Some Highlights from the Court’s Decision

The following are some of the potentially most relevant aspects of the Court’s decision, with the page in brackets for ease of reference.

First of all, the PRC is squarely treated as the defendant, notwithstanding the fact she is refusing to take part in the proceedings. Thus “The Parties to this arbitration are the Republic of the Philippines (the “Philippines”) and the People’s Republic of China (“China”)” (p. vii). To justify this, the Court cites Art 9 of Annex VII to the Convention, saying that “the non-participation of China does not bar this Tribunal from proceeding with the arbitration. China is still a party to the arbitration, and pursuant to the terms of Article 296(1) of the Convention and Article 11 of Annex VII, it shall be bound by any award the Tribunal issues” (p. 11). While this does not necessarily imply an ultimate ruling in favor of Manila, as stressed by the Court (“The Tribunal does not simply adopt the Philippines’ claims, and there can be no default judgment as a result of China’s non-appearance”), it amounts to a major defeat for Beijing, which has seen her stress on bilateral negotiations and position that Manila had agreed to exclusively pursue such venue dismissed. Furthermore, it also means that the view that Manila’s case implied (even if just implicitly) territorial delimitation and thus fell squarely within the PRC’s derogation from compulsory arbitration in such matters has also been defeated. This makes it more difficult for China to proceed as in the recent past with a gradual yet relentless expansion, where reclamation and militarization went hand in hand with appeals to dialogue and negotiation and repeated promises of respect for freedom of navigation and overflight. Thus, either China tones down her actions and becomes more pragmatic and conciliatory, as some observers believe she may, or she chooses to nakedly ignore international rules and institutions, as Japan did following the Manchurian Incident and subsequent Lytton Report and Stimson Doctrine.


Concerning China’s non-participation, the PAC explicitly acknowledge the 7 December 2014 position paper, not only referring to it but stating that its publication “facilitated the Tribunal’s task to some extent”. Thus, for the benefit of justice and the concept of equality of arms between the parties, the Court has clearly taken a pragmatic approach towards China’s decision to approach the PAC indirectly, not making a submission but instead publishing a position paper laying down her views and her response to the Philippines’ demands. This was already clear, as explained in the decision, when this summer on holding hearings on jurisdiction the Court provided the PRC “with daily transcripts and all documents submitted during the course” of those hearings. In a way we could see perhaps all this as evidence of some sort of pragmatic arrangement, or gentlemen’s agreement, whereby Beijing did not formally take part in the proceedings but was still informed in detail and had the chance to make her views known to the Court. As the ruling notes, “The Position Paper has since been followed by two letters from the Chinese Ambassador addressed to the members of the Tribunal and by regular public statements of Chinese officials that touch on the arbitration” (p. 41). This could of course go on in the next stage, as the Court deliberates on the merits. Beijing may stay aloof from the proceedings, as she has announced she will, while still interacting with the Court on a semi-official basis. However, this just means delaying the moment when Beijing, should the final ruling go against her, will have to decide whether to comply or not with that decision. In that case, even if the PRC’s leadership chooses pragmatism and accommodation, the CCP may find itself a prisoner of its own rhetoric, and the many years during which it has been telling the Chinese population that the country had “indisputable sovereignty” over the whole of the South China Sea. Thus, accepting the ruling may be no easy matter for Beijing, even if the will is there.

Concerning Bejing’s claims that the case amounts to an abuse of right, the Court rejects it, saying that “China has not made an application to the Tribunal pursuant to Article 294(1) of the Convention”, which would force it to decide whether it was the case, and “the Tribunal is therefore under no obligation to follow the procedure outlined in Article 294(2)”. Furthermore, the ruling states that “the procedure is appropriate in only the most blatant cases of abuse or harassment”, which is not the situation in the current proceedings (p. 43). Therefore, the PAC chooses instead to focus on jurisdiction. China may have considered that submitting an application under Article 294 UNCLOS would definitely be considered to amount to taking part in the proceedings. An alternative explanation is that Beijing preferred not to risk losing an early battle by having the Court formally determine that the case did not constitute an abuse of right, choosing instead to simply use this term to criticize it in the political arena.

With regard to Beijing’s contention that it is impossible to rule on the exercise of maritime rights before first ruling on the underlying territorial dispute, the Court is adamant that this is not the case, stating instead that it “does not see that any of the Philippines’ Submissions require an implicit determination of sovereignty” (p. 59-60). This notion that it is possible to first determine the interpretation of UNCLOS and whether a party’s actions conform to it, while leaving territorial delimitation to later negotiations or (non-compulsory) arbitration could be compared to the idea (put into practice by Taiwan and Japan in their Senkaku Islands fisheries agreement) that it is possible to first jointly manage and exploit natural resources, while again leaving territorial delimitation for later. This is a reminder of how the Philippines’ arbitration case and Taiwan’s East China Sea initiative (and its child, the Senkaku fisheries agreement with Japan), taken together, may point the way forward to a peaceful, international law-based approach to maritime territorial disputes in the Indo-Pacific Region. An informal Manila-Taipei-Tokyo democratic triangle may emerge as the seed around which a wider informal coalition may emerge, although of course for this to be effective its reach cannot be limited to the diplomatic and legal arenas. One thing is to stress the rule of law at sea and peaceful resolution of disputes in accordance with international law, another to wishfully think that this can take place without the possibility of resorting to force if necessary. National security and collective security are the other side of the coin, without which international law and the rule of law at sea cannot thrive and ultimately prevail.

The Tribunal notes, in line with long-standing comments by observers and other states, that “China has not, as far as the Tribunal is aware, clarified the nature or scope of its claimed historic rights. Nor has China clarified its understanding of the meaning of the ‘nine-dash line’ set out on the

map accompanying its Notes Verbales of 7 May 2009” (p. 62). This was precisely the motivation behind the US State Department’s Limits in the Seas issue No 143 devoted to Chinese claims in the South China Sea. Thus, although this is a matter reserved for the decision on the merits of the case, we could read the PAC’s ruling on jurisdiction as saying that the nine-dash line must be translated into claims under UNCLOS, since the Convention does not recognize any such concept. This makes it clear that Beijing is facing an uphill battle in seeking to convince the court that the nine-dash line can indeed be made to fit into UNCLOS. However, there is always the possibility that in its final ruling the Court will not declare the line as such to be contrary to UNCLOS, as requested by the Philippines, but instead take a softer, more pragmatic approach, and say that while not illegal per se, its meaning must be clarified by resort to those concepts such as the territorial sea and the EEZ laid down in the Convention. While the impact of such a ruling would not be as spectacular, it may be a way of avoiding cornering Beijing, leaving room for later negotiations and compromise, instead of making Beijing lose face in no uncertain terms. Such a ruling would allow both sides to claim victory. We should remember, in this regard, that international tribunals must often walk a fine line between the wish to uphold international law, and the need to ensure its effective implementation. Thus, rather than a perfect ruling with close to zero chances of settling the matter, the PAC may prefer a less than perfect text that can be used as a stepping stone towards a final settlement of the dispute.

Also interesting is the fact that the Court considers that no intervention by a third party is necessary in the proceedings, thus reinforcing the view that territorial delimitation is not at stake. This again is in line with Manila’s position, while not following “the Chinese Ambassador’s First Letter”, where he “did express serious concern and opposition to a procedure of ‘intervention by other States’”, in reference to Vietnam, “as being ‘inconsistent with the general practices of international arbitration’” (p. 73). Hanoi’s role in the proceedings, not formally a party but having made her own statement and attended this summer’s proceedings, shows how, and this is one of the aspects of the case which clearly worries China, the arbitration proceedings, although strictly speaking bilateral, have attracted not only the support of a wide range of countries, but limited participation by some of them. Taken together, it could facilitate cooperation among these countries, and furthermore could support the notion that China is the odd man out, and not just another claimant, in the South China Sea.

Concerning China’s assertion that the Philippines had agreed not to pursue arbitration, by among others signing the 2002 DOC (Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea), the Court considers that its “language is not consistent with the creation of new obligations but rather restates existing obligations pending agreement on a Code that eventually would set out new obligations”, adding that it basically reaffirms existing obligations and exhorts parties to create others at some point in the future (p. 83). Thus, the Court concludes that “the DOC was not intended to be a legally binding agreement with respect to dispute resolution”, and uses contemporary documents to support the view that it was instead “an aspirational political document”. In doing so, the PAC stresses statements by China herself, such as that in August 2000 by a spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, who said that the “Code of Conduct will be a political document to promote good neighbourliness and regional stability instead of a legal document to solve specific disputes” (p. 84). This is significant at many levels. On the one hand it illustrates a very important general principle of international law, that someone cannot go against his own acts. On the other, it exposes the shallowness of bilateral and multilateral diplomacy in the South China Sea in recent years, full of smoke and grand sounding statements but rather short on substance. Other claimants may be wary of openly calling Beijing’s bluff for fear of appearing disrespectful, but the Court minces no words in its ruling on jurisdiction, providing a detailed explanation of why the long list of statements, agreements, and contacts, do not amount to much at the end of the day, and clearly constitute no bar to the arbitration proceedings, since at no stage have the Philippines and Beijing agreed to forgo this road.

Finally, we should note that out of 15 submissions by the Philippines, the Court determined that it had jurisdiction to consider seven, and concerning another seven it reserved consideration of its jurisdiction to the merits phase. In one (15, concerning the request of a declaration that “China shall desist from further unlawful claims and activities”), the Court “DIRECTS the Philippines to clarify the content and narrow the scope of its Submission” and also reserves consideration of its jurisdiction to the merits phase. The ruling states that “the claims and activities to which this

Submission could potentially relate are unclear from the Philippines pleadings to date” (p. 147). Since, out of 15 submissions, not one has been determined at this stage to be ultra vires (beyond the powers of) the Court, it is difficult to overstate the degree to which this constitutes a major victory for the Philippines. Having said that, we should remember that this arbitration case, and more generally appeals to international law, the rule of law at sea, and peaceful resolution of disputes in accordance with international law, are only an aspect of Manila’s strategy to deal with Chinese expansionism. They should not be seen in isolation, but rather in conjunction with rearmament, and stronger bilateral and multilateral relations with fellow maritime democracies. Unless the Philippines can upgrade their military, regaining lost capacities such as combat jets, and being able to deal with the different levels of warfare (including non-lethal force at sea), a victory in the final stage of this legal battle may end up being little more than a footnote in history books.

Taiwan’s Reaction

MOFA spokesperson Eleanor Wang said that “The Republic of China government’s determination to defend the country’s sovereignty and maritime rights over the four island chains in the South China Sea is not open to question”, adding that her department was closely following developments in the arbitration case, and would respond as necessary. The Republic of China is not a party to UNCLOS, but Taipei has urged the different parties involved to respect international law, including this convention.

Taiwanese views on the issue are important for a number of reasons. First of all because the ROC is one of the claimants, and controls Itu Aba (Taiping) Island. Second, since PRC claims and in particular the famous “Nine-dash line” and its successors originated in the ROC, which the PRC claims to have legally superseded. Third, given that in spite of the previous point Taipei has been moving away from these maximalist positions, both in theory and practice. Fourth, because the Island launched an East China Sea Peace initiative, followed by a fisheries agreement with Japan concerning the Senkaku / Diaoyu / Diayutai, and both could be a template for the South China Sea. Finally, because one of the points that irritated Beijing, as clear from the Chinese 7 December 2014 position paper, was the Philippines’ alleged deviation from a “One China” policy in her arbitration suit against the PRC.

Taiwan may not be recognized by the UN and most countries in the world, and actually still has to decide whether to recognize herself, but the dispute over the South China Sea is intimately connected to that over the Island. After proving that democracy and Sinic culture are compatible, Taiwan is now showing how the latter can also coexist side by side with the rule of law and a pragmatic approach to territorial disputes.

Beijing insists the case is outside UNCLOS compulsory arbitration.

The PCA ruling prompted a strong reaction by Beijing, with the PRC’s Foreign Affairs Ministry insisting in refusing to recognize the court and take part in the proceedings. We should note, however, that as explained China has not stayed completely aloof from the case, since on 7 December 2014 she issued a position paper explaining her views and the reasons why she believed the case should be dismissed. In a statement dated 30 October, the MOFA said the ruling was “null and void, and has no binding effect on China”, and warned that the case would damage “the integrity and authority of the UNCLOS”. The text said that “With regard to territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests, China will not accept any solution imposed on it or any unilateral resort to a third-party dispute settlement”. It also slammed the case as a “political provocation under the cloak of law”, stressing that China’s position, explained in her position paper, was “clear and explicit, and will not change”. Beijing once again underlined that she considered the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) to mean Manila had agreed to exclusively resort to “negotiations and consultations”.

While none of this comes as a surprise, it is not clear yet whether the ruling will contribute to a change in Chinese policy. Beijing may wait for the ruling on the merits, while completing the construction of military and dual-use facilities in her artificial islands and avoiding major incidents, keeping a lower profile. She may, on the other hand, declare an ADIZ (Air Defense Identification Zone). Either way, China may seek some accommodation with other littoral states, in order to prevent ASEAN from coordinating effectively and to limit the potential damage to her reputation that could result from appearing too inflexible. In the longer run, China may seek to either shape rules and institutions like UNCLOS and the PAC, or devise an alternative more to her liking. The first option could imply building an informal coalition with countries also keen to expand the rights of coastal states in their EEZs. However, at least two obstacles loom large, namely the unclear nature of Chinese claims (which may go much further than that) and the fact that some potential allies also happen to be rival claimants. The recent FONOP (freedom of navigation operation) in the South China Sea by USS Lassen has been supported by a number of regional states, even those like Vietnam who are also targeted by Washington’s freedom of navigation program. The second, more radical, option, would involve setting up an alternative institutional framework, as Beijing is gradually doing in the international financial arena with the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the possible development of a RMB payments system independent of Swift.


Manila has won a victory in the first stage of the legal battle aimed at arresting Beijing’s expansion in the South China Sea. Although, as stressed by the Court, this does not prejudge the final decision on the merits of the case, major pillars of the PRC’s narrative, such as the alleged agreement with other countries to pursue negotiations only, have been blown out of the water. Faced with this, China may choose to ignore a decision in favor of Manila, thus putting a further dent on her prestige as a country respectful of international law and other nations, or seek some sort of accommodation, saving face while making some concessions. Some voices believe that China may already be starting to act in a more conciliatory manner, in the wake of the ruling on jurisdiction. However, flexibility may not be compatible with a public opinion that has repeatedly been told the South China Sea was “indisputably” Chinese, and which may turn on any leader ready to make concessions. Concerning the Philippines, even if success at this stage is repeated when the Court rules on the merits of the case, she needs to keep working on rearmament and stronger bilateral and multilateral relations with fellow maritime democracies and Vietnam, since otherwise the Court’s final ruling may amount to little more than a symbolic victory. Taiwan, not a party to UNCLOS, is however a very important actor in this dispute, and her East China Sea Peace Initiative and subsequent fisheries agreement with Japan may be vindicated if an arbitration ruling is followed by a peaceful settlement of the South China Sea dispute, or at least an agreement to set aside territorial claims while jointly managing resources and moving forward with confidence-building measures.

Alex Calvo, a guest professor at Nagoya University (Japan), focuses on security and defence policy, international law, and military history, in the Indian-Pacific Ocean Region. A member of Taiwan’s South China Sea Think-Tank and CIMSEC (The Center for International Maritime Security), his previous work on the South China Sea includes “China, the Philippines, Vietnam, and International Arbitration in the South China Sea”, The Asia Pacific Journal: Japan Focus, Volume 13, Issue 42, No. 2, 26 October 2015, available at http://japanfocus.org/-Alex-Calvo/4391/article.pdf He tweets at Alex__Calvo and his work can be found at https://nagoya-u.academia.edu/AlexCalvo

Taiwan’s Defense: National Interests over Semantics

The Diplomat has recently brought us a debate on international law – centering on the legality of military intervention on behalf of Taiwan during a conflict with the PRC. Zachary Kech kicked off by proposing that Japan’s recent reinterpretation of Article 9 of their Constitution to permit collective self-defense could allow for Japan defending Taiwan in the event of an attacked from China. This was followed by Julian Ku arguing that intervention by any nation on behalf of Taiwan against the mainland would be illegal since Taiwan is neither definitively recognized as an independent nation nor a United Nations member. Michal Thim quickly refuted those claims in an article, which is followed again by Julian Ku coming back with some clarifications on personal opinions and reiterates the original argument. Finally, Michael Turton and Brian Benedictus co-authored a somewhat convoluted argument that actually Taiwan’s unsettled status as an independent nation makes military intervention acceptable.

With no disrespect meant toward the authors, the merits of discussing this point are mostly academic. Though the debate may be stimulating to those with an interest in the topic and some might learn more about the subject of international law as a result of it, it has little to no bearing on practicality.

One of the key questions present in all of the articles is if Taiwan is an independent nation or an extension of mainland China and how international law views each situation. Clearly arguments can be made in support of both positions or else we would not have so many articles written about it in the past couple of weeks, but does it really matter? Whatever semantics used to describe relationships with Taiwan or China, the U.S. has active relationships with both of them.

Money keeps this machine running
Money keeps this machine running

According to the Office of the United States Trade Representative, China is currently the U.S.’s second largest goods trading partner with $562 billion in total goods trade during 2013 and Taiwan is currently the 12th largest with $64 billion in 2013. Would any of this change if the United Nations passed a resolution stating Taiwan was not an independent nation and officially a part of the larger mainland China? Of course not. Money, and more importantly national interests, will conquer over semantics any day.

Whether the U.S. or Japan would defend Taiwan if China decided to repatriate the island through military force should have nothing to do with semantics and everything to do with strategic interests. The strategic basis for protecting Taiwan or not is neither the subject of this article nor the debate at the Diplomat which inspired it. This article makes no comment as to should or would other nations protect Taiwan, but instead discusses could they.

There is so much talk about international law in the debate. International law, as opposed to simply international norms and conventions, has been in vogue since the fighting of two world wars and the founding of the United Nations. Why? Because law has an absolute and moral feel about it. If you are breaking the law then you are doing something wrong and others have a moral obligation to stop you. If you are following the law then you are doing something right and others have a moral obligation to support you. This grossly oversimplifies the complexities of international relations. Decisions are made to promote strategic national interests and all nations are not necessarily playing by the same moral and ethical code. In the domestic concept of law, you have a like peoples under a recognized government authority with enforcement power. This does not seamlessly translate to the international stage of co-equal governments with differing interests and no central authority with absolute enforcement power.

Welcome back
The Party welcomes you back

If China decided tomorrow to repatriate Taiwan with military force and the U.S. and Japan intervened, would they be protecting a sovereign nation from an invading force or helping to liberate a people from a government they do not want? This semantic difference might matter when deciding what article of the United Nations charter you are going to try to use for propaganda to gain support for your cause or generate opposition for your enemies or what the victor who writes the history will use to justify their actions in the history books. But in all practicality, nations should base their use of force on national strategy and not semantics.

LT Jason H. Chuma is a U.S. Navy submarine officer currently serving as Navigator and Operations Officer onboard USS SPRINGFIELD (SSN 761). He is a graduate of the Citadel, holds a master’s degree from Old Dominion University, and has completed the Intermediate Command and Staff Course from the U.S. Naval War College. He can be followed on Twitter @Jason_Chuma.

The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy.

Law from Power

A law is the system of rules that a particular country or community recognizes as regulating the actions of its members and may enforce by the imposition of penalties. The key word being enforce. If someone asks, “Why shouldn’t you exceed the speed limit?” will the most likely answer be “because it is against the law,” or will it be “because if you get caught you will have to pay a speeding ticket”?

We can romanticize laws and say they come from a unified moral feeling of right and wrong, but they do not. The truth is, laws come from power. It is not enough that a governing body makes a rule and tells everyone to follow it. All laws ultimately come down to the issue of enforcement. Any authority can say something is a law, but if they cannot enforce it, it becomes meaningless. The legalization of marijuana within the states of Colorado and Washington is a good example. Marijuana is illegal within the United States under the Controlled Substance Acts of 1970, but in 2012 the states of Colorado and Washington legalized marijuana. How can individual states within the U.S. passing state-level legislation countermand federal law? The answer is simply, they cannot. Marijuana is still illegal by federal law within Colorado and Washington, but the federal government of the U.S. either does not have the means or the will to enforce it, so it effectively becomes legal.

She's going to need that sword.
She’s going to need that sword.

The United Nations was created in 1945 to maintain peace and international security. Since its creation, it has been viewed by most of the world as the creator, maintainer, and enforcer of international law. The 2003 invasion of Iraq and 2014 annexation of Crimea by Russia are two events in recent history in which many have very different opinions. Multiple positions have thrown around the terms “in violation of international law” and “in accordance with international law” repeatedly.

Those who oppose the war have repeatedly made the argument that the 2003 invasion of Iraq was in violation of Article 2 sect. 4 of the UN charter, “all members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.” There is also a valid argument that UN Security Council Resolution 1441, which passed the Security Council unanimously as Iraq’s “final opportunity to comply with its disarmament obligations,” was enough to authorize a UN member to take military action. Along similar lines, some argue that Russia violated the territorial integrity of Ukraine, while others claim that actions in Crimea are a domestic issues under Article 2 sect. 7 of the UN Charter where “nothing contained in the present Charter shall authorize the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state.” The Crimean people voted to secede from Ukraine and then requested to join Russia.

The legal definitions will be debated for both cases for years to come, but this is not important. What is more relevant to ask is, does it matter? Anyone can say the actions taken in Iraq or Ukraine were against international law, but if no one has the means and will to enforce it, then it is meaningless. Condemn all you want, show deep concern, and say there will be consequences, but talk is cheap. Power and action are expensive.  

Maintaining international peace and security
Maintaining international peace and security

When the UN was formed, it consisted of 51 members. There were approximately 76 internationally recognized independent nations at this time. If the other approximately 25 nations created a different organization counter to the UN and passed their own conflicting laws to what was laid out by the UN charter, would those laws have been any less real? Absolutely! At the point of its creation the UN contained the most powerful nations in the world, so when it said in Article 2 sect. 6 that “the Organization shall ensure that states which are not Members of the United Nations act in accordance with these Principles,” it meant business because the UN had the power to back it up.

Laws ultimately come down to the issue of enforcement, and the ability to enforce comes from having adequate power. Arguing what is contrary to and in accordance with international law means absolutely nothing if there are not meaningful consequences for nation’s actions. Claims without the ability to enforce are rhetoric, nothing more.

LT Jason H. Chuma is a U.S. Navy submarine officer who has deployed to the U.S. 4th Fleet and U.S. 6th Fleet areas of responsibility. He is a graduate of the Citadel, holds a master’s degree from Old Dominion University, and has completed the Intermediate Command and Staff Course from the U.S. Naval War College. He can be followed on Twitter @Jason_Chuma.

The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy.