Tag Archives: international law of the sea

US Department of State Seeks to Clarify Meaning of China’s 9-Dash Line Part 1

By Alex Calvo

Introduction

Despite repeatedly stating that it will not take sides in territorial disputes in East Asia, Washington remains keenly interested in the ultimate fate of the South China Sea. In addition to perennial calls to settle disputes peacefully, regular reminders of the importance of freedom of navigation, military aid to regional actors like the Philippines, and support for a more active policy by non-littoral maritime democracies like India and Japan, the US Department of State (DOS) took a further step late last year by issuing a document, part of its “Limits in the Seas” series. The text seeks to explain the different ways in which one may interpret Chinese maritime claims in the South China Sea (“that the dashes are (1) lines within which China claims sovereignty over the islands, along with the maritime zones those islands would generate under the LOS Convention; (2) national boundary lines; or (3) the limits of so-called historic maritime claims of varying types”). It concludes that the “dashed-line claim does not accord with the international law of the sea” unless “China clarifies that” it “reflects only a claim to islands within that line and any maritime zones.” The text includes supporting Chinese official views, without attributing “to China the views of analysis of non-government sources, such as legal or other Chinese academics.” Concerning this latter restriction, although it is of course official sources which may be considered to be most authoritative when it comes to interpreting a government’s position, we should not forget that administrations in different countries will often resort to “two-track diplomacy” or employ semi or non-official back channels to test the waters and lay the groundwork for future formal negotiations.

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The object of this five-part series is to summarize the DOS document, while commenting on some of its most relevant features, and where appropriate going beyond the text and examining related aspects of the South China Sea conflict.

Tyranny of History: Can Washington claim not to take sides on Filipino territorial claims?

Before summarizing the “Limits in the Seas” document, we should note that the American policy of not taking sides concerning the ultimate issue of sovereignty could be challenged given Washington’s past sovereignty over the Philippine Archipelago. While this has not been publicly stressed by Manila to date, it could enter the debate as a means of putting more pressure on Washington to adopt a more robust posture.

Chinese Claims and Possible Interpretations According to International Law

In line with long-standing US demands that Beijing clarify the ultimate nature of her South China Sea claims, the DOS document analyzes those figures within UNCLOS and customary international law which may provide cover to Beijing’s claims. Issued on 5 December 2014, the Department of State paper begins by stressing that “China has not clarified through legislation, proclamation, or other official statements the legal basis or nature of its claim associated with the dashed-line map”, explains the “origins and evolution” of the dashed-line maps, provides a summary of the different maritime zones recognized and regulated by UNCLOS, and then proceeds to explain and discuss three possible interpretations of that claim “and the extent to which those interpretations are consistent with the international law of the sea.” The document contains a number of maps, including (Map 1) that referred to in China’s two May 2009 notes verbales to the UN Secretary General, which stated that “China has indisputable sovereignty over the islands in the South China Sea and the adjacent waters, and enjoys sovereign rights and jurisdiction over the relevant waters as well as the seabed and subsoil thereof. The above position is consistently held by the Chinese government, and is widely known by the international community.”

1
Nine-dash map attached to China’s two 2009 Notes Verbales.

A Look at Chinese Map Quality and Accuracy

The text first outlines the history of China’s maps of the South China Sea containing dashed lines, starting with a 1947 map published by the Nationalist government, noting that later PRC maps “appear to follow the old maps” (see L. Jinming and L. Dexia, “The Dotted Line on the Chinese Map of the South China Sea: A Note”, Ocean Dev’t & Int’l L., Volume 34, 2003, pp. 287-95, p. 289-290) with two significant changes: the removal of two dashes inside the Gulf of Tonkin (in an area partly delimited by Vietnam and the PRC in 2000) and the addition of a tenth dash to the East of Taiwan. These two changes can be interpreted in different ways, to some degree contradictory. On the one hand, the partial delimitation agreement with Vietnam could be seen as evidence of Chinese pragmatism and flexibility, and proof that it is possible for countries in the region to at least partly settle their disputes by diplomacy. On the other, explicitly encompassing Taiwan with an extra dash may be seen as a reinforcement of Chinese claims on the island not necessarily based on the will of her population. Alternatively, it could simply be a way to more comprehensively encompass the waters and features that Beijing (either directly or via Taipei) wishes to master.

The paper then examines successive Chinese maps from a cartographic perspective, stressing that “China has not published geographic coordinates specifying the location of the dashes. Therefore, all calculations in this study relating to the dashed line are approximate.” A similar criticism has sometimes been made of the San Francisco Treaty. The text also notes that “China does not assign numbers to the dashes,” and therefore those in the study are for “descriptive purposes only.” They “are not uniformly distributed,” being “separated from one another by between 106 (dashes 7 and 8) and 274 (dashes 3 and 4) nautical miles (nm).” This section of the paper stresses that “Nothing in this study is intended to take a definitive position regarding which features in the South China Sea are ‘islands’ under Article 121 of the LOS Convention or whether any such islands are ‘rocks’ under Article 121(3).” This is in line with Washington’s refusal to take sides concerning the ultimate sovereignty disputes in the region. The text notes that the “dashes are located in relatively close proximity to the mainland coasts and coastal islands of the littoral States surrounding the South China Sea,” and explains that, for example, Dash 4 is 24 nm from Borneo’s coast, part of Malaysia. Generally speaking, “the dashes are generally closer to the surrounding coasts of neighboring States than they are to the closest islands within the South China Sea,” and as explained later this is significant when it comes to interpreting the possible meaning of China’s dashed line, since one of the principles of the Law of the Sea is that land dominates the sea, and thus maritime boundaries tend as a general rule to be equidistant. That is, maritime boundaries tend to be roughly half way between two shores belonging to different states.

To hammer home this point, the study includes a set of six maps illustrating this. The report criticizes the technical quality of the PRC maps, saying that they are inconsistent, thus making it “complicated” to describe the dashed line, whose dashes are depicted in different maps “in varying sizes and locations.” Again, this is important in light of possible interpretations of Chinese claims, since this lack of consistency and quality not only obfuscates Chinese claims, introducing an additional measure of ambiguity, but also makes it more difficult to ascertain whether historical claims are being made and whether they are acceptable in light of international law.

The dashes change from map to map, with those “from the 2009 map” being “generally shorter and closer to the coasts of neighboring States” than those in the 1947 map. The dashed lines in these two maps are illustrated and compared in Map 5 of the document. The section concludes noting that the 2009 map, which Beijing distributed to the international community “is also cartographically inconsistent with other published Chinese maps.”

Read the next installment here

Alex Calvo is a guest professor at Nagoya University (Japan) focusing on security and defence policy, international law, and military history in the Indian-Pacific Ocean. Region. A member of the Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC) and Taiwan’s South China Sea Think-Tank, he is currently writing a book about Asia’s role and contribution to the Allied victory in the Great War. He tweets @Alex__Calvo and his work can be found here.

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South China Sea arbitration: Beijing puts forward her own views: The Finale

By Alex Calvo

This is the final installment in a four-part series devoted to China’s 7 December 2014 document, putting forward her views on the Philippines’ international arbitration case on the South China Sea. Although Beijing is refusing to take part in the proceedings, as confirmed following the Court’s 29 October 2015 ruling on jurisdiction, by issuing this document, and communicating in other ways with the Court, the PRC has failed to completely stay aloof from the case. It is thus interesting to analyze China’s narrative as laid down in that document. Read Part OnePart Two, Part Three

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The South China Sea and the Arctic: contradictions in China’s posture? Beijing’s insistence on excluding non-littoral estates from the dispute furthermore clashes with Chinese policy in the Arctic, where the country seeks a voice, arguing that despite just being a (self-labeled) “quasi-Arctic state” it has a right to at the very least make its voice heard given that the region has an impact on its interests. Countries like India, Japan, and the United States, may well put forward similar views concerning the South China Sea, considering themselves to be “quasi-littoral” states given among others their dependence on Sea Lanes of Communication (SLOCs) going through it.

Incentives to delay negotiations. A number of contradictory arguments may be put forward concerning this. Those wishing to blame China may accuse Beijing of seeking to change facts on the ground first (by, for example, occupation of some features and the artificial expansion of others), before engaging in meaningful negotiations. They may also argue Beijing is waiting for the balance of naval power in the region to shift further in her favor, or for developments elsewhere in the world to weaken the resolve of non-regional actors to intervene. On the other hand, those seeking to blame the Philippines may put forward similar accusations, arguing that Manila wishes to rearm (with US and Japanese assistance) first before engaging in serious negotiations with China. These voices may also put forward the view that Manila first wishes to take the moral high ground (among other means by the international arbitration bid), secure stronger support by the United States, or draw in other interested parties like Japan. We can thus see how both sides have potential reasons not to seek a speedy start of bilateral negotiations.

China defends cooperation prior to delimitation, but it is Taiwan and Japan which have implemented the principle. Section IV is perhaps not so original, basically reiterating arguments already expounded in Section III. It still contains some paragraphs worthy of comment, though. In Paragraph 61 the text refers to the “Agreement for Joint Marine Seismic Undertaking in Certain Areas in the South China Sea” between China National Offshore Oil Corporation and Philippine National Oil Company, expanded in 2005 to “a tripartite agreement, with the participation of Vietnam Oil and Gas Corporation.” The text praises it as “a good example of the constructive efforts made by the States concerned to enhance cooperation and create conditions for a negotiated settlement of the disputes in the South China Sea,” stressing that the “maritime area covered by that agreement is within that covered in the present arbitration initiated by the Philippines.” Few would disagree that agreements like this do indeed offer an interesting path, allowing states party to a dispute to build trust while concentrating on the joint development and management of natural resources, leaving for later tricky questions of sovereignty. When we move from the realm of theory to that of practice, however, we find that such efforts involving China have not been successful. In the South China Sea, possible cooperation seems to have given way to violent competition, with oil rigs becoming “weapons” rather than symbols of cooperation. In the East China Sea, where a similar agreement was concluded with Japan, it later unraveled and has not been implemented. It is Taiwan, not China, that has actively pushed for joint management that could proceed while leaving sovereignty for later. This has resulted not only in President Ma’s East China Sea Peace Initiative, but in a fisheries agreement with Japan along these lines. Whatever the reasons, no similar agreement has been concluded and effectively implemented by the PRC.

 8,- “Chinese Embassy to the Netherlands. While refusing to take part in the arbitration proceedings, China has regularly communicated with the Court, often through this Embassy.

Chinese Embassy to the Netherlands. While refusing to take part in the arbitration proceedings, China has regularly communicated with the Court, often through this Embassy.

Partial versus comprehensive solutions in territorial conflicts. It is interesting to note the position paper’s critique of Manila’s arbitration bid in Paragraph 68, which argues that “The issues presented by the Philippines for arbitration constitute an integral part of maritime delimitation between China and the Philippines” and that “The Philippines’ approach of splitting its maritime delimitation dispute with China and selecting some of the issues for arbitration, if permitted, will inevitably destroy the integrity and indivisibility of maritime delimitation and contravene the principle that maritime delimitation must be based on international law as referred to in Article 38 of the ICJ Statute and that ‘all relevant factors must be taken into account.’ This will adversely affect the future equitable solution of the dispute of maritime delimitation between China and the Philippines.” While the first sentence is just a reiteration, the second one touches upon a legitimate concern, given that any partial ruling runs the risk not only of being difficult to implement due to its non-comprehensive nature, but also of not being equitable for lack of consideration of certain factors concerning areas or aspects not included in the arbitration proceedings. This could be a reason to reject this approach. On the other hand, it could be said that history shows how countries often reach limited agreements, either because they are unable to successfully reach a comprehensive settlement, or because they prefer to start dealing with those issues where they either expect it to be easier to reach an understanding or which are more pressing. China is no stranger to this posture. The reference to equity though is important since an equitable settlement is often one involving tradeoffs, and such tradeoffs will often only be acceptable when covering a case’s full spectrum of issues.

The long shadow of history in China’s narrative against compulsory arbitration. In Section V the text demands full respect for China’s “right to freely choose the means of dispute settlement”, while defending the position that the “rejection of and non-participation in the present arbitration is solidly grounded in international law.” The stress on “consent” (76), while not amounting to any Chinese singularity, may also reflect the country’s experience with the so-called “unequal treaties.” Also important is the reference (76) to the “package deal” nature of UNCLOS, which is indeed the case, and as the text notes involved “extended and arduous negotiations” with regard to Part XV dealing with dispute settlement. The position paper insists (78) that the resulting “balance” in that Part was “a critical factor” prompting many countries to sign the convention, and again cites the Southern Bluefin Tuna Case, this time to reinforce the notion that compulsory arbitration should be restricted to cases where all parties agreed to it. The problem with this is that if all parties agree to arbitration, then there is no need for the procedure to be compulsory, and if compulsory proceedings are provided for, it is with a view to at least some cases where one or more countries may indeed oppose them. If “compulsory” arbitration could only move forward with the post-ratification consent of all parties involved, one could argue that there would be no need for UNCLOS to lay down areas where arbitration could be mandatory.

Abuse of right. Another legal principle that the text delves into (84) is that of “abuse of right”, in tandem with the above-mentioned “good faith.” These are general principles of law found, in some form or another, in most legal systems. The text cites Article 300 of UNCLOS, which lays down that “States Parties shall fulfill in good faith the obligations assumed under this Convention and shall exercise the rights, jurisdiction and freedoms recognized in this Convention in a manner which would not constitute an abuse of right,” adding that Manila has not done so by seeking to bypass Beijing’s refusal to engage in arbitration and existing agreements to settle the dispute by negotiations.

Conclusions. Beijing’s document, despite stressing that it is not a formal reply, systematically rejects all of Manila’s arguments, while summarizing China’s position. While China emphasizes the Philippines’ alleged promise to deal with the issue bilaterally, the text refers to treaties between other countries, mentions ASEAN, and touches upon the sensitive issue of Taiwan, in a reminder of how difficult it is to keep things bilateral in this corner of the world. Reading in between lines we can also see how history casts a long shadow over Beijing’s position, a position which is not always free from contradictions, for example when it defends the delay in opening up negotiations with Manila by stressing the complexities involved due to among others the large number of parties, while at the same time emphasizing her traditional stance that the dispute should be approached bilaterally. At the end of the day, it will be might (in a broad sense of the word, not necessarily limited to naval power, and in particular traditional lethal naval power), rather than right which will determine the fate of the South China Sea, but this does not mean that international law will not play a role, and hence the need to carefully follow developments in the international arbitration case initiated by the Philippines, together with rearmament and greater coordination among maritime democracies.

Alex Calvo is a guest professor at Nagoya University (Japan) focusing on security and defence policy, international law, and military history in the Indian-Pacific Ocean Region. A member of the Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC) and Taiwan’s South China Sea Think-Tank, he is currently writing a book about Asia’s role and contribution to the Allied victory in the Great War. He tweets @Alex__Calvo and his work can be found here.

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South China Sea arbitration: Beijing puts forward her own views Part Three

By Alex Calvo

This is the third installment in a four-part series devoted to China’s 7 December 2014 document, putting forward her views on the Philippines’ international arbitration case on the South China Sea. Although Beijing is refusing to take part in the proceedings, as confirmed following the Court’s 29 October 2015 ruling on jurisdiction, by issuing this document, and communicating in other ways with the Court, the PRC has failed to completely stay aloof from the case. It is thus interesting to analyze China’s narrative as laid down in that document. Read Part One, Part Two

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Has Manila committed herself not to initiate compulsory arbitration proceedings? Section III largely consists of a long list of bilateral agreements and statements, and ASEAN documents, laying down commitments to settle disputes by negotiation and agreement, whose purpose is to prove that Manila is therefore “debarred from unilaterally initiating compulsory arbitration.” In the former category, the text cites among others (31) the “Joint Statement between the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of the Philippines concerning Consultations on the South China Sea and on Other Areas of Cooperation, issued on 10 August 1995” which contains “the principles that ‘[d]isputes shall be settled in a peaceful and friendly manner through consultations on the basis of equality and mutual respect’ (Point 1); that ‘a gradual and progressive process of cooperation shall be adopted with a view to eventually negotiating a settlement of the bilateral disputes’ (Point 3); and that ‘[d]isputes shall be settled by the countries directly concerned without prejudice to the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea’ (Point 8)” and (33) the “The Joint Statement” of 16 May 2000 whose Point 9 states that the two countries “agree to promote a peaceful settlement of disputes through bilateral friendly consultations and negotiations.”

Concerning China-ASEAN documents, the text stresses (35) the 2002 “Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (‘DOC’),”whose Paragraph 4 reads “The Parties concerned undertake to resolve their territorial and jurisdictional disputes by peaceful means … through friendly consultations and negotiations by sovereign states directly concerned, in accordance with universally recognized principles of international law, including the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.” The DOC is of particular interest, not only because it has also been signed by most coastal states in the South China Sea (although not by Taiwan), but because it has often been touted by observers and governments as proof that it was indeed possible to settle the status of the sea without resorting to war. Does this agreement close the doors to compulsory arbitration under UNCLOS? As often in the law, at least two different interpretations are possible. On the one hand, a literal reading of the quoted paragraph seems to restrict the avenues opened to coastal states, although the term “only” or words to that effect do not appear in that section (as China’s position paper openly acknowledges in its Section 40). On the other it could be argued that the reference to UNCLOS is in itself a door open to arbitration, since that treaty provides under certain conditions and limitations for this form of dispute settlement. An intermediate view could be that the DOS forces signatories to first resort to direct consultations and negotiations, with arbitration under UNCLOS as a last resort. Concerning this view, Manila argues that China has no intention to engage in meaningful negotiations, whereas Beijing says (45) that “the truth is that the two countries have never engaged in negotiations with regard to the subject-matter of the arbitration.” This is, at least to some degree, surprising, when we bear in mind the emphasis in the text on China’s commitment to negotiations. Given Beijing’s stress on bilateral negotiations, why have these have not even started with the Philippines? Not that they have not concluded, or progressed, but not even begun. Perhaps with such a question in mind, the position paper provides (47) some possible reasons, such as the fact that “the South China Sea issue involves a number of countries.” This is of course true, but by pointing it out as a reason not to have even begun negotiating with the Philippines, China is contradicting another pillar of its posture in the South China Sea: its insistence on bilateral, as opposed to multilateral, negotiations. One could thus argue that China cannot have its cake and eat it too. If the issue is complex because of the large number of actors involved, would a multilateral forum not be more appropriate? If so, why does Beijing insist on bilateral negotiations? And when someone like Manila argues these are leading nowhere, then the reply is that they have not even started because, among other reasons, of the large number of countries involved. There are of course powerful reasons why China may prefer a bilateral approach, but this illustrates how easy it is to fall into contradictions in the international arena, not something that affects just China of course.

Chinese marine archaeologists working in the South China Sea in 2008. Archaelogy plays a key role in Beijing's narrative.
Chinese marine archaeologists working in the South China Sea in 2008. Archaelogy plays a key role in Beijing’s narrative.

With regard to the absence of an explicit exclusion of third-party settlement, which as pointed out the text acknowledges, China cites the “Southern Bluefin Tuna Case”where the arbitration tribunal stated that “the absence of an express exclusion of any procedure … is not decisive.” Two key words for China are to “agree”, which the text (38) explains often appears in bilateral communiques, and “to undertake”, which features (38) in Paragraph 4 of the DOC. China’s position paper stresses, citing the ICJ in Bosnia and Herzegovina v. Serbia and Montenegro, where the Court ruled that “[t]he ordinary meaning of the word ‘undertake’ is to give a formal promise, to bind or engage oneself, to give a pledge or promise, to agree, to accept an obligation. It is a word regularly used in treaties setting out the obligations of the Contracting Parties …. It is not merely hortatory or purposive.” For China, bilateral agreements and statements with the Philippines and the DOC are not separate realities, but (39) “mutually” reinforce “and form an agreement between China and the Philippines”, giving rise to “a mutual obligation to settle their relevant disputes through negotiations.”

The position paper underlines (50), as a further argument to prove that exchanges of views with the Philippines did not start in 1995, that it was not until 2009 that Manila abandoned claims in excess of UNCLOS. Concerning the doctrine of Estoppel, that is the ban on acting against one’s own acts, the paper rejects (51) Manila’s assertion that Beijing has incurred a “grave breach of the terms of the DOC,” preventing it from invoking Paragraph 4 “to exclude the jurisdiction of the Arbitral Tribunal”, dismissing it as “groundless.” The text considers this to be a “selective” resort to the DOC and a “self-contradictory tactic” amounting to a violation of “good faith.” It is true that a general principle of the law, also of international law, is that one cannot refer in isolation to a given excerpt from a rule or document. The problem is perhaps that the position paper overdoes this by next (55) referring to an alleged “current relationship of cooperation between China and the ASEAN member States in the South China Sea,” to which countries like Vietnam might not fully subscribe. The text (56) also argues that Manila’s resort to arbitration amounts to “running counter to the common wish and joint efforts of China and the ASEAN member States,” and here this is not something that can be so easily dismissed, since the Philippines has indeed been the only littoral state to try to resort to arbitration, although Vietnam and some other states, including non-littoral ones, seem to be at least providing a measure of support to Manila, although framed in terms designed not to overtly provoke China.

Lastly, the position paper argues (73) that when one state has issued a declaration in accordance with Article 298 of UNCLOS, excluding itself from compulsory arbitration in certain areas, another state cannot initiate proceedings arguing that they do not fall within the exemption, before first engaging in negotiations with the defendant state. The text says that otherwise Article 298 would be rendered “meaningless.” To reinforce this, the text adds (74) that this is the first such case, and that “Should the above approach be deemed acceptable, the question would then arise as to whether the provisions of Article 298 could still retain any value,” placing a question mark on “the declarations so far filed by 35 States Parties under Article 298.” Here we should distinguish the core of the matter from the procedural issues at stake. Even if it were to agree with Beijing on this point, the fact that the arbitration court will have to rule on the admissibility of the case and its own powers could be seen as a barrier to any attempt to institute compulsory arbitration in areas covered by an Article 298 exemption. Of course, the problem for the state sued is that in order to argue before the court that the latter should dismiss the case it would be necessary to appear before it, which is precisely what Beijing is bent on avoiding. Issuing this position paper is a way to make its views known, while avoiding this trap. As mentioned earlier, this can be interpreted in many ways. From the point of view of the rule of law and the progress of international law and tribunals, it can cut both ways. On the one hand, we could say that China’s (and Vietnam‘s) decision to address the PAC, despite not joining the proceedings, shows that these, and more generally international arbitration, cannot simply be ignored, whatever the protestations to the contrary. On the other hand, such moves may be seen as bypassing formal proceedings, and showing how imperfect the actual powers of international tribunals remain.

Read the next installment here

Alex Calvo is a guest professor at Nagoya University (Japan) focusing on security and defence policy, international law, and military history in the Indian-Pacific Ocean Region. A member of the Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC) and Taiwan’s South China Sea Think-Tank, he is currently writing a book about Asia’s role and contribution to the Allied victory in the Great War. He tweets @Alex__Calvo and his work can be found here.

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South China Sea arbitration: Beijing puts forward her own views Part Two

By Alex Calvo

This is the second installment in a four-part series devoted to China’s 7 December 2014 document, putting forward her views on the Philippines’ international arbitration case on the South China Sea. Although Beijing is refusing to take part in the proceedings, as confirmed following the Court’s 29 October 2015 ruling on jurisdiction, by issuing this document, and communicating in other ways with the Court, the PRC has failed to completely stay aloof from the case. It is thus interesting to analyze China’s narrative as laid down in that document. Read Part One.

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Putting the cart before the horse? China argues delimitation of land territories must come first. The text affirms (6) that “Since the 1970s, the Philippines has illegally occupied a number of maritime features of China’s Nansha Islands, including Mahuan Dao, Feixin Dao, Zhongye Dao, Nanyao Dao, Beizi Dao, Xiyue Dao, Shuanghuang Shazhou and Siling Jiao. Furthermore, it unlawfully designated a so-called ‘Kalayaan Island Group’ to encompass some of the maritime features of China’s Nansha Islands and claimed sovereignty over them, together with adjacent but vast maritime areas,” claiming sovereignty “over Huangyan Dao of China’s Zhongsha Islands and illegally explored and exploited the resources on those maritime features and in the adjacent maritime areas,” and (10) argues that in any case it is not possible to rule “on whether China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea have exceeded the extent allowed under the Convention” until “the extent of China’s territorial sovereignty in the South China Sea” has been determined.

This argument is central to China’s case, being the opposite of one of the pillars of Manila’s arbitration bid, namely that it only concerns the extent and manner that rights are exercised, rather than territorial delimitation, which is out of bounds to the court due to Beijing’s derogation (that is, opt out from that aspect of the convention, meaning that compulsory arbitration does not extend to territoria delimination in the case of China), which Manila acknowledges. To press the issue further, Beijing cites the ICJ, (11) pointing out that “the land dominates the sea.” That is, it argues that one cannot discuss whether the sea is being used in accordance with UNCLOS before a full determination of a country’s land territory has been made, a determination not open to the Permanent Court of Arbitration without Beijing’s consent. The text calls (14) Manila’s attempt to examine the former “contrived packaging” which “fails to conceal the very essence of the subject-matter of the arbitration, namely, the territorial sovereignty over certain maritime features in the South China Sea.” Another, less aggressive, term employed by the text (18) to press home the same point is “putting the cart before the horse.” To support this view, the document argues (18) that there is no precedent “in relevant cases” of any “international judicial or arbitral body” having “ever applied the Convention to determine the maritime rights derived from a maritime feature before sovereignty over that feature is decided.” While international tribunals like the PAC are not, formally speaking, bound to the doctrine of precedent (stare decisis), they do tend to follow previous rulings. However, there have not been a large number of cases, much less a coherent set of rulings, on this issue. Therefore, we may say that there is simply no consistent body of case law on whether it is possible to examine compliance with UNCLOS of a country’s practice at sea in advance of territorial determination.

“China claims reclamation work in the South China Sea is in accordance with international law.”
“China claims reclamation work in the South China Sea is in accordance with international law.”

Appropriation of low-tide elevations: Beijing argues not up to interpretation of UNCLOS. Concerning the “low-tide elevations” that Manila claims to be such and has included in its arbitration bid, saying that they cannot be appropriated, China’s document (23 and 24) argues that “whether or not” they “can be appropriated is plainly a question of territorial sovereignty.” Formerly often referred to as “drying rocks” or “banks,” UNCLOS defines “low-tide elevations” as “a naturally formed area of land which is surrounded by and above water at low tide but submerged at high tide.” The Chinese paper states that it “will not comment” on whether they are “indeed low-tide elevations,” while pointing out that “whatever nature those features possess, the Philippines itself has persisted in claiming sovereignty over them since the 1970s,” citing “Presidential Decree No. 1596, promulgated on 11 June 1978” whereby Manila “made known its unlawful claim to sovereignty over some maritime features in the Nansha Islands including the aforementioned features, together with the adjacent but vast areas of waters, sea-bed, subsoil, continental margin and superjacent airspace, and constituted the vast area as a new municipality of the province of Palawan, entitled ‘Kalayaan.’” China’s position paper cites later Filipino legislation, arguing that while pretending to adjust claims to UNCLOS it does “not vary the territorial claim of the Philippines to the relevant maritime features, including those it alleged in this arbitration as low-tide elevations.” The text accuses Manila of contradicting herself by first asserting in “Note Verbale No. 000228, addressed to Secretary-General of the United Nations on 5 April 2011” that “the Kalayaan Island Group (KIG) constitutes an integral part of the Philippines,” the KIG including among others “the very features it now labels as low-tide elevations,” with the “only motive” being to deny them to China and “place them under Philippine sovereignty.” Furthermore, the position paper argues (25) that UNCLOS “is silent on this issue of appropriation” of low-tide features, citing the ICJ in the 2001 Qatar v. Bahrain ruling, where it stated that “International treaty law is silent on the question whether low-tide elevations can be considered to be ‘territory.’ Nor is the Court aware of a uniform and widespread State practice which might have given rise to a customary rule which unequivocally permits or excludes appropriation of low-tide elevations.” The text also cites a later 2012 ICJ case, the “Territorial and Maritime Dispute (Nicaragua v. Colombia),” where it stated that “low-tide elevations cannot be appropriated” but argues that the Court “did not point to any legal basis for this conclusory statement. Nor did it touch upon the legal status of low-tide elevations as components of an archipelago, or sovereignty or claims of sovereignty that may have long existed over such features in a particular maritime area,” adding that “the ICJ did not apply the Convention in that case.” Therefore, China’s position paper argues, “Whether or not low-tide elevations can be appropriated is not a question concerning the interpretation or application of the Convention.”

Taiwan: lurking on the background. Taiwan and the “One-China Principle” are not absent from China’s document either, the text (22) accusing Manila of committing a “grave violation” of the principle for omitting Taiping Dao (Island) from the list of “maritime features” described as “occupied or controlled by China.” Instead, the text describes it as being “currently controlled by the Taiwan authorities of China.” This is a reminder that the conflict over the South China Sea is connected with that over Taiwan, in a number of ways. We may ask ourselves whether Manila was departing here from her “One-China Policy.” Was this a warning shot, or merely another example of how state practice concerning Taiwan is moving (sometimes inadvertently) away from Beijing’s strict position in many countries.

The burning question of freedom of navigation and overflight. Given the current controversy over FON (Freedom of Navigation) operations by the US Navy, along or together with partners and allies, close to China’s artificial islands in the South China Sea, this is an aspect of Beijing’s paper of great interest to observers. Concerning this, section 28 stresses that “China always respects the freedom of navigation and overflight enjoyed by all States in the South China Sea in accordance with international law.” While this is in line with repeated assertions by Chinese authorities, it prompts further doubts on the exact nature of Beijing’s claims, in the sense that if all it was demanding was an EEZ then freedom of navigation and overflight would simply flow from international law, without the need for any concession by the coastal state. The issue is made more complex by the fact that in Beijing’s view the rights of coastal states are more extensive than in the eyes of countries such as the United States, going as far as including the right to authorize or deny military activities such as electronic intelligence gathering, which has been the source of a number of incidents, some of them fatal. Thus, if what China is claiming is an EEZ, is Beijing making a concession and accepting a lesser set of coastal state rights in the particular case of the South China Sea? Alternatively, should we read “freedom of navigation and overflight” as being restricted to civilian ships and planes, or at least not including any activities such as ELINT (electronic intelligence) gathering, prejudicial to the coastal state? Other questions may be prompted by China’s assertion. For example, does this also apply to territorial waters around Chinese islands in the South China Sea? A question made more complex by the fact that there is no agreement over which islands are islands there, in particular given the extensive reclamation work taking place.

Read the next installment here

Alex Calvo is a guest professor at Nagoya University (Japan) focusing on security and defence policy, international law, and military history in the Indian-Pacific Ocean Region. A member of the Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC) and Taiwan’s South China Sea Think-Tank, he is currently writing a book about Asia’s role and contribution to the Allied victory in the Great War. He tweets @Alex__Calvo and his work can be found here.

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