Tag Archives: international law of the sea

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

By Alex Calvo

Introduction: restatement or small Filipino victory? Manila’s international arbitration bid has been repeatedly rejected by Beijing, which argues that it does not fall under the compulsory arbitration provisions of UNCLOS. Even after the Court ruled on jurisdiction, on 29 October 2015, China stuck to this position, as clear from an official statement the following day. However, despite repeatedly refusing to appear before the court, last year Beijing chose to issue a formal document stating her posture. For some this may simply be a restatement of China’s position, confirming that it will not take part in the proceedings. For others, it amounts to a small victory for the Philippines and the rule of law at sea, since China has finally been unable to completely ignore the proceedings. Whatever one thinks about it, it is useful to examine the document, dated 7 December 2014 (unclear whether any pun intended), while we wait for the Permanent Court of Arbitration to hold the first oral hearings on the substantive aspects of the case, scheduled for late November 2015. We shall be doing so in this four-part series.

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Chinese attitudes towards international law. Post-Mao China has followed a somewhat contradictory approach to international law. To a large extent, this mirrors the country’s complex domestic relationship with the concept of the rule of law. On the one hand, China’s reopening of her law schools after the Cultural Revolution and huge expansion of the legal profession and the practical, day to day, presence of the law, has led to a similar move in the international arena. However, this greatly expanded role of the law both domestically and internationally has been accompanied, in the internal domain, by a persistent rejection of the concept of “rule of law”, authorities rather leaning towards “rule by law.” In Chinese foreign relations, international law has had to contend with two obstacles. First, there is a mistrust of international tribunals, and the fear that they may impinge on Chinese sovereignty. Moreover, the South China Sea has been defined as a “core national interest,” although the exact meaning of this term may not be completely clear. Second, with the notion that public international law is a creature of Western nations and thus inextricably linked to a historical period of foreign domination that only began to be reversed after the 1949 Communist victory, or now that Chiang Kai-shek seems to be enjoying some sort of rehabilitation in China the 1943 Cairo conference. This applies particularly to the law of the sea, seen as unfairly constraining the legitimate aspirations of a nation that has grown increasingly dependent on maritime trade and which feels surrounded by a chain of islands in hostile hands.

The paper’s purposes, according to Beijing. After an introduction, making it clear that issuing the paper does not amount to taking part in the arbitral proceedings, the text lists in Paragraph 3 the main purposes of the paper, each such purpose covered in sections II to V. These goals are first of all (Section II, Paragraphs 4-29) to stress that the case concerns “the territorial sovereignty over several maritime features in the South China Sea,” which, contrary to Filipino assertions, “is beyond the scope of the Convention and does not concern the interpretation or application of the Convention.” Section III, Paragraphs 30-56 explains that “China and the Philippines have agreed, through bilateral instruments and the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, to settle their relevant disputes through negotiations” and that the arbitration proceedings are thus a breach by Manila of “its obligation under international law.” Section IV, Paragraphs 57-75 explains Beijing’s position that, “assuming, arguendo, that the subject-matter of the arbitration” was interpreting or applying UNCLOS, this would still be “an integral part of maritime delimitation” thus falling squarely within China’s derogation from compulsory arbitration. Section V, Paragraphs 76-85 underlines that “the Arbitral Tribunal manifestly has no jurisdiction over the present arbitration” and defends the view that China’s refusal to take part in the proceedings stands “on solid ground in international law.” These sections are followed by a set of Conclusions (Section VI, Paragraphs 86-93).

The 1898 Treaty of Paris in the PRC’s narrative of the conflict. In Section II, the document (5) explains that “Prior to the 1970s, Philippine law had set clear limits for the territory of the Philippines, which did not involve any of China’s maritime features in the South China Sea,” citing Article 1 of the 1935 Constitution, which reads “The Philippines comprises all the territory ceded to the United States by the Treaty of Paris concluded between the United States and Spain on the tenth day of December, eighteen hundred and ninety-eight, the limits of which are set forth in Article III of said treaty, together with all the islands embraced in the treaty concluded at Washington between the United States and Spain on the seventh day of November, nineteen hundred, and the treaty concluded between the United States and Great Britain on the second day of January, nineteen hundred and thirty, and all territory over which the present Government of the Philippine Islands exercises jurisdiction.” It added that the 1961 Philippine Republic Act No. 3046, titled “An Act to Define the Baselines of the Territorial Sea of the Philippines,” confirmed such territorial limits.

Replica of one of Admiral Zheng He's treasure ships, built in 2014. As China turns to the sea, she is stressing his figure.
Replica of one of Admiral Zheng He’s treasure ships, built in 2014. As China turns to the sea, she is stressing his figure.

Setting aside for a moment whether Manila has indeed redefined the limits to her national territory, this is potentially very significant because as reiterated in last year’s US Department of State “Limits on the Sea” No 143 paper, devoted to China, Washington has persistently stressed that it was taking no sides concerning the ultimate issue of sovereignty. Yet, while this may be sustainable in the case of other territorial disputes in the region, the case of the Philippines is rather different, given that the country was under US sovereignty for more than half a century. Thus, whatever one makes of Beijing’s case, it is difficult not to agree that past treaties signed by the United States may be relevant to the issue at hand. A question may be what, if any, may be Beijing’s motivation in bringing up such treaties, in addition to providing arguments in favor of its posture concerning the extent of Filipino territorial claims. Is Beijing perhaps hoping to prompt Washington to publicly comment on the matter in a way that may be detrimental to Manila? Or to quietly lean on the Philippines not to go too far? These may be speculative questions, yet ones difficult to avoid given the complex nature of the South China Sea dispute, with not only different immediate players, that is the coastal states, but plenty of other interested contenders, including the United States, Japan, India, and Russia. China’s document also refers to a UK-US Treaty, and while London has traditionally chosen a low profile posture in the region, it has recently been upgrading defense cooperation with Japan. Going back to Washington, the possible impact of past treaties and other diplomatic practice has already been considered important by observers in the case of Taiwan and the Senkaku/Diaoyu/Diaoyutai Islands, given Formosa’s change of status following the end of the Second World War and the American occupation of the Ryukyu Archipelago for three decades after its conclusion. However, the connection with the United States is much closer in the case of the Philippines, and Washington’s non-committal posture on sovereignty may come under increased pressure, although as mentioned this could result from different, even opposed motivations. 

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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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He Who Defends Everything Defends Nothing

He who defends everything defends nothing: The Philippines, Scarborough Shoal, the South China Sea, and Sabah and the Sultanate of Sulu

By Alex Calvo

Introduction. The Philippines’ South China Sea strategy brings together rearmament, rapprochement with the US, tighter security and defense links with Japan, and an international arbitration case under UNCLOS, whose fate is still pending, with oral hearings on jurisdiction having taken place over the summer. Manila’s narrative and legal arguments concerning Bajo de Masinloc (Scarborough Shoal) are grounded on post-World War II developments. On 18 April 2012 the Philippines’ Department of Foreign Affairs stated that “The Philippines considers Bajo de Masinloc an integral part of Philippine territory on the basis of continuous, peaceful and exclusive exercise of effective occupation and effective jurisdiction over the shoal”, stressing this was not based on UNCLOS but “anchored on other principles of public international law”, and also underlining that it “is not premised on the cession by Spain of the Philippine archipelago to the United States under the Treaty of Paris”. While, alternatively, the Philippines may seek to resort to historical arguments from earlier eras, this may play into China’s hands, as noted by some observers. The offer to Malaysia to downgrade Filipino claims on Sabah in exchange for moves reinforcing Manila’s position in the international arbitration case under UNCLOS seems to confirm that the Philippines have indeed decided to focus on post-WWII arguments.

Alternatively, Manila may have sought to follow one of three routes to prove the past exercise of sovereign powers as the foundation for her territorial claims in the South China Sea. The first possible line of argument would involve proving that the Spratly were part of the Spanish Philippines, and were transferred to the US after the 1898 war. The second would be to claim that they were incorporated into the Philippines following their transfer to American sovereignty. Finally, a third approach would be to argue that they were part of the Sultanate of Sulu, thus linking the two claims.

The Spanish colonial era. Three international conventions regulate the geographical extent of the territorial transfer following the 1898 war: the Treaties of Paris and Washington between the US and Spain, and that concluded between the United States and Great Britain on 2 January 1930. A range of potential problems would loom large if Manila tried to resort to the geographical extent of this territory. First of all, the mentioned treaties do not provide a fully detailed picture of the resulting borders. Second, the actual reach of the colonial administration was not always clear, with widespread resistance to Spanish rule and insurgency in a number of areas. In line with many other colonies, actual control was often a measure of distance from the capital, and went from long-standing exercise of sovereign powers, resulting in widespread cultural, linguistic, legal, economic, and social, influence, to little more than nominal sovereignty (or suzerainty when indirect rule was favored) on paper. Third, geographical knowledge was not always accurate, with some territories imperfectly mapped or chartered, and confusion sometimes arising out of conflicting accounts. Having said that, some maps, like the one below, do explicitly include features currently under dispute, such as Bajo de Masinloc (Scarborough Shoal).

Spanish colonial era map of the Philippines, including Bajo de Masinloc / Scarborough Shoal. Kindly provided by Dr David Manzano Cosano, Escuela de Estudios Hispano-Americanos (CSIC; Spanish National Research Council)
“This map, from present-day Italy, included the Spratly in the Philippines’ territory”

Furthermore, some expeditions and other activities took place featuring Bajo de Masinloc (Scarborough Shoal). After a long history of uncertainty over its existence and location, the grounding of HMS Scarborough, chartered by the East India Company to transport tea, on 12 September 1748 led not only to its modern English-language name, but to its precise chartering. Navigation charts published after the incident reflected it, but uncertainty still meant some debate on exactly where the ship had run aground, and some decades would pass until this was dispelled. It was the Malaspina Expedition which in May 1792 finally ascertained the exact location of Scarborough Shoal, and confirmed that some reefs appearing on maps actually referred to this feature. This was followed, in 1800, by the first detailed Spanish survey, conducted by the frigate Santa Lucia, part of the Cavite-based naval squadron. Commanded by Captain Francisco Riquelme, she was one of the first steam-powered warships deployed in the Philippine Islands to take part in the campaigns against the Sultan of Sulu and the Moro slave-raiding pirate bands. Thus, this ship illustrates two aspects of Spanish colonial rule which to some extent are contradictory, supporting and weakening potential historical arguments in line with Philippine claims. On the one hand, it illustrates the connection between the Philippines and Scarborough Shoal, with activities from Luzon-based ships. On the other, it reflects how conflict with insurgents and pirates were a constant of the period, with sovereignty on paper extending further than on the ground (and the waters).

Frigate Santa Lucia, which commanded by Captain Francisco Riquelme conducted the first Spanish survey of Scarborough Shoal (Bajo de Masinloc) in 1800
Frigate Santa Lucia, which commanded by Captain Francisco Riquelme conducted the first Spanish survey of Scarborough Shoal (Bajo de Masinloc) in 1800

This low-lying reef, per Riquelme, extends more than 8 2/3 miles from North to South, and 9 1/2 miles from East to West from one end to the middle part, but from there narrowing until it ends in a tip. It is surrounded by horrible dangers that may appear without warning or other markings to serve notice of their proximity. Some rocks can be seen slightly above water only by close observation on a clear day, and only by having careful look-outs can one see the reef at a distance of 7 miles”Capitan Riquelme’s findings were incorporated into the “Dorroteo del Archipielago Filipino”, the Spanish pilot’s guide. An 1879 edition reads:

Spanish colonial authorities did not only incorporate details of Scarborough Shoal into their charts, but also began to exercise search and rescue jurisdiction over the shoal, sending ships from Manila to assist vessels in distress. Since this is one of the activities traditionally considered to fall under the umbrella of exercise of sovereign powers, it is worth noting.

Eastern half of the General Chart of the Pacific Ocean, published in 1897 by the Hydrography Section of the Spanish Navy.
Eastern half of the General Chart of the Pacific Ocean, published in 1897 by the Hydrography Section of the Spanish Navy.
Eastern half of the General Chart of the Pacific Ocean, published in 1897 by the Hydrography Section of the Spanish Navy.
Spanish colonial era map of the Philippines, including Bajo de Masinloc / Scarborough Shoal. Kindly provided by Dr David Manzano Cosano, Escuela de Estudios Hispano-Americanos (CSIC; Spanish National Research Council)

The Philippines under American sovereignty. A second possibility would be to argue that once under American sovereignty, currently disputed features clearly came to be officially considered part of Filipino territory. A significant obstacle to any such assertion is Washington’s long-held position that it takes no position on territorial disputes in the South China Sea, restricting its policy to how disputes are solved (insistence on peaceful solutions in accordance with international law) and the extent of any resulting settlement, with particular emphasis on freedom of navigation and overflight, and compliance with US views on the extent of coastal states powers in their EEZs. In December 2014 The Department of State published No 143 in its “Limits in the Seas” series, titled “China: Maritime Claims in the South China Sea”, which again emphasized that “The United States has repeatedly reaffirmed that it takes no position as to which country has sovereignty over the land features of the South China Sea”.

However, this view does not reflect the fact that the activities described earlier under Spanish colonial rule continued to take place after 1898. The most famous, and a well-documented, incident took place in 1913. A typhoon hit the S.S. Nippon, a Swedish steamer carrying copra, and she was wrecked on Scarborough shoal. This prompted Philippine authorities to intervene, together with private ships, in the rescue of the crew, investigate the accident, and carry out a scientific study on the effects of the sea on her cargo. In addition, the ship came under the salvage laws of the Philippines, and the resulting legal case was appealed all the way up to the Supreme Court of the Philippines, leaving behind an extensive paper trail documenting the exercise of a wide range of powers by the Philippine authorities in connection with Bajo de Masinloc (Scarborough Shoal).

The SS Nippon, owned by the Swedish East Asiatic Co., which shipwreck on Scarborough Shoal in 1913 led to a civil case that ended up before the Supreme Court of the Philippines
The SS Nippon, owned by the Swedish East Asiatic Co., which shipwreck on Scarborough Shoal in 1913 led to a civil case that ended up before the Supreme Court of the Philippines

In the 1930s, the Commonwealth Government sought an explicit assertion of sovereignty over Scarborough Shoal, going beyond the exercise of administrative powers, including search and rescue. On December 6, 1937, Mr. Wayne Coy (Office of the US High Commissioner for the Philippines) asked Captain Thomas Maher (head of the US Coast and Geodetic Survey) whether any country had claimed Scarborough Shoal. The reply, dated 10 December 1937, was that no information was available on whether any nation had. Concerning the Santa Lucia 1800 survey, Captain Maher said “If this survey would confer title on Spain or be a recognition of sovereignty, or claim for same without protest, the reef would apparently be considered as part of Spanish territory the transfer of which would be governed by the treaty of November 7, 1900”. He also suggested that a new survey take place, and a navigational light be installed.

The next year saw Mr. Jorge B. Vargas (secretary to the president) write to Mr. Coy, asking about the status of Scarborough Shoal and saying that “The Commonwealth Government may desire to claim title thereto should there be no objection on the part of the United States Government to such action”. This prompted Mr Coy to forward this correspondence to the US War Department, which in turn sent them to the State Department, resulting in an interesting exchange. For example in a letter dated 27 July 1938 Secretary of State Cordell Hull told Secretary of War Harry Woodring that his department “has no information in regard to the ownership of the shoal”, which “appears outside the limits of the Philippine archipelago as described in Article III of the American-Spanish Treaty of Paris of December 10, 1898”. However, Hull wrote, “in the absence of a valid claim by any other government, the shoal should be regarded as included among the islands ceded to the United States by the American-Spanish treaty of November 7, 1900” and therefore the State Department would not object to the Commonwealth Government’s proposal to study the possible setting up of air and ocean navigation aids, as long as “the Navy Department and the Department of Commerce, which are interested in air and ocean navigation in the Far East, are informed and have expressed no objection”. The reply from Acting Secretary of the Navy W.R. Furlong to Acting Secretary of War Louis Johnson was positive, both concerning navigation aids and “the possibility of later claiming title”. The secretary of commerce also said his department had no objections.

We can observe a measure of ambiguity, though, with the US Government having no objections to the Commonwealth Government claiming Scarborough, and even considering it to be included in the second treaty with Spain following the 1898 War, but not actually claiming the features itself. Manila also expressed an interest in the Spratly, but despite this prompting Washington chose to keep a “low profile” concerning the archipelago, with non-recognition of claims by others and a close eye on Japanese interests and activities going hand in hand with a failure to officially claim the islands. The same applied could be said about Scarborough Shoal. In the words of François-Xavier Bonnet (IRASEC; Research Institute on Contemporary Southeast Asia), “the geographical proximity spoke in favor of the Philippines (rescue operations). In a way, Bajo de Masinloc could be seen as integrated in the sphere of influence of the Philippines, but outside the main archipelago. Political and symbolic acts, like naming the shoal, surveying, mapmaking, and organizing rescue operations, were the only appropriate activities that the Spanish and American authorities could do on an isolated shoal, which was, for the most part, underwater during high tide”.

The Sultanate of Sulu. A third possibility for Manila would be to claim sovereignty over Bajo de Masinloc as having historically been under the Sultanate of Sulu, that is merging the claim with that over Sabah. However the Philippines seem to be leaning towards focusing on Scarborough, going as far as offering Malysia to downgrade her claim to Sabah in exchange for support on the former conflict. This was clear in one of the Filipino moves this year connected to the international arbitration case, namely the offer to Malaysia, in a Note Verbale, to review its protest against the 6 May 2009 joint Vietnamese-Malaysian submission to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS), containing a claim by Kuala Lampur of an extended continental shelf (350 nautical miles from the baselines) projected from Sabah. In exchange for this, Manila is requesting two actions that she believes would reinforce her case against China: First, to “confirm” that the Malay claim of an extended continental shelf is “entirely from the mainland coast of Malaysia, and not from any of the maritime features in the Spratly islands”. Second, to confirm that Malaysia “does not claim entitlement to maritime areas beyond 12 nautical miles from any of the maritime features in the Spratly islands it claims”.

The impact on Manila’s Sabah claims has not been lost on observers, with former Philippine permanent representative to the United Nations Lauro Baja Jr., if Malaysia explaining that if the deal is accepted the Philippines’ claim to Sabah will be “prejudiced”, adding that “We are in effect withdrawing our objection to Malaysia’s claim of ownership to Sabah”. Some voices argue that the Philippines need to stop claiming Sabah, since otherwise they are favoring Chinese claims to South China Sea features. William M. Esposo has criticized the “charlatans and overnight Sabah claim experts” who “thought they were patriots fighting for Philippine national interest” but “didn’t even realize that the arguments they were mouthing were supporting China’s very claims to our territory in the South China Sea”. Esposo cites Renato de Castro (De La Salle University International Studies Department), to stress that “historic claims, such as the one we have with Sabah, are the weakest cases when international courts decide territorial dispute”.

Conclusions. The Philippines are basing their South China Sea narrative on post-Second World War developments, and going as far as appearing ready to sacrifice their claim to Sabah in order to reinforce the arguments put forward in their international arbitration case against Beijing. This fits with Washington’s agnostic view of territorial claims, even when they involve areas formerly under US sovereignty. However, it is still interesting from a historical perspective to examine other possible arguments of this nature that could support Filipino claims on Bajo de Masinloc (Scarborough Shoal).

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.

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.

2

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.

Conclusions

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

Gibraltar: Legal Advice on Innocent Passage

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While tensions over the South China Sea often prompt headlines, attracting a great deal of attention by analysts, the dispute over Gibraltar has a much smaller presence in the media and specialized publications. However, given its location at a vital chokepoint, the conflict over the Rock cannot be ignored by naval and maritime observers. Furthermore, for the student of comparative conflict at sea it is interesting to look at some of its features, including disputes over the law of the sea and resort to non-lethal asymmetric warfare, which we also find elsewhere. A third reason is Gibraltar’s role in the air reinforcement strategy for the defence of the Falklands, an issue that China watchers are increasingly paying attention to, given Beijing’s growing interest in the South Atlantic, including Namibia.

Just like in the South China Sea, one of the aspects of the dispute over Gibraltar concerns the concept of “Innocent Passage”. In the case of the Rock, intruding warships have often claimed to be engaged in this regime, recognized by international law, both customary and UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea). However, Gibraltar’s authorities have rejected such claims, arguing that they were a mere excuse to justify incursions into British Territorial Waters. In order to reinforce their case, Gibraltar’s government announced in November 2014 that it had commissioned an expert legal opinion on the definition of innocent passage under UNCLOS. The latest string of incidents prompted the Gibraltar Broadcasting Corporation (GBC) to ask the Rock’s authorities whether the opinion had been received, and they replied confirming it had. According to the GBC, the opinion explains that “A vessel can only be considered to be on innocent passage through British Gibraltar Territorial Waters if it’s moving continuously and expeditiously, and is not engaged in any activities that are prejudicial to Gibraltar or the UK”, adding that “when it appears objectively from the foreign vessel’s behaviour that its purpose in passing through BGTW is to assert its country’s sovereignty claim over the waters, its passage would not be deemed to be innocent under international law.”1

HMS Scimitar escorting Spanish Govt vessel Emma Bardan out of BGTWs
HMS Scimitar escorting Spanish Govt vessel Emma Bardan out of BGTWs

On reading the GBC report, Luke Coffey, Margaret Thatcher Fellow, Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom, The Heritage Foundation, tweeted “Spain in violation of UNCLOS, Article19 (Meaning of innocent passage), paragraph 2C, 2D, 2J, probably 2K and 2L!!”.2 These passages of UNCLOS read:

Meaning of innocent passage

1. Passage is innocent so long as it is not prejudicial to the peace, good order or security of the coastal State. Such passage shall take place in conformity with this Convention and with other rules of international law.

2. Passage of a foreign ship shall be considered to be prejudicial to the peace, good order or security of the coastal State if in the territorial sea it engages in any of the following activities:

(c) any act aimed at collecting information to the prejudice of the defence or security of the coastal State;

(d) any act of propaganda aimed at affecting the defence or security of the coastal State;

(j) the carrying out of research or survey activities;

(k) any act aimed at interfering with any systems of communication or any other facilities or installations of the coastal State;

(l) any other activity not having a direct bearing on passage”.

It could also be argued that incursions into Gibraltar’s territorial waters amount to a violation of paragraph (a) of the mentioned UNCLOS article, which reads “ any threat or use of force against the sovereignty, territorial integrity or political independence of the coastal State, or in any other manner in violation of the principles of international law embodied in the Charter of the United Nations”, given that they take place in parallel with a denial of the British sovereignty over the Rock and her population’s right to self-determination.

However, innocent passage is a key concept in the law of the sea, and cannot be easily dismissed. Any attempt to deny that a warship moving through territorial waters enjoys it must be approached with care. This was made clear by James Kraska, a professor at the US Naval War College, who also commented on the Gibraltar report. Kraska stressed on Twitter that a “[t]hreat may not be implied based on mere presence, but must be overt, such as statement or action, such as fire control radar,” adding “See Jackson Hole Agreement; purpose of trip irrelevant; must have overt violation of art. 19 to be not innocent.”3 This refers to the 1989 USA-USSR Joint Statement With Attached Uniform Interpretation of Rules of International Law Governing Innocent Passage, known as “Jackson Hole Agreement”, whose text states that “All ships, including warships, regardless of cargo, armament or means of propulsion, enjoy the right of innocent passage through the territorial sea in accordance with international law, for which neither prior notification nor authorization is required”, in accordance with UNCLOS.

A difference between Cold War maritime confrontations and the dispute over Gibraltar is that in the former, it was the limits of innocent passage, which were disputed, ultimately leading to the 1989 Joint Statement. However, in the case of the Rock, vessels violating her territorial waters claim that those waters do not exist. Another difference to take into account is that while ramming featured in a number of incidents during the Cold War, the context was mainly a threat of conventional war at sea. On the other hand, what we are now seeing in regions like the South China Sea is mainly non-lethal warfare, featuring a complex mix of coastguards and other state agencies, fishing boats, maritime militias, and oil rigs. In Asia, this phenomenon is called the “gray zone” between peace and war. This does not mean that the conventional force is irrelevant, since what we are facing in the South China Sea is a dual war akin to the Second Indochina War on land. Concerning Gibraltar, the fact that intruding ships purport to conduct “sovereignty” patrols means that their passage is not innocent within the meaning of Article 19 of UNCLOS. The very purpose of those incursions is to undermine the “peace, good order, and security” of the territorial waters of the United Kingdom.

Could the legal opinion provided to Gibraltar’s Government have any influence on the legal dispute over the South China Sea? As is often the case, lawyers on both sides may find something to support their respective views. On the one hand, maritime democracies are bound to benefit from any obstacle to further incursions into British Territorial Waters, which not only run directly against the concept of rule of law at sea and peaceful resolution of disputes, but make it difficult for the European Union to play a role in the South China Sea. On the other hand, China may expand the notion that a warship moving through territorial waters is not engaged in innocent passage when making a territorial claim, arguing that neither is she when contesting a territorial claim. The challenge, however, remains how to distinguish lawful innocent passage, no matter how disliked by the coastal state, from genuine threats to “peace, good order, or security” of the coastal state. Kraska underlines that for this analysis, we must fall back on the Charter of the United Nations, which forbids the “threat or use of force.” A factor not to be forgotten is Beijing’s permanent seat at the UNSC, meaning that whatever interpretation of the UN charter may prevail among maritime democracies, it is unlikely to make it into a Security Council resolution if it is seen by China as detrimental to her national security. Recent months have seen many proposals concerning a reinforced presence by maritime democracies in waters claimed by Beijing in the South China Sea, and the airspace over them, as well as a number of incidents involving warships and planes in those same waters. The former include a study by Scott Cheney-Peters on joint air patrols, whose main purpose would be “to counter excessive claims and rights not in accordance with international law.”

It would be interesting to see the full text of the legal opinion commissioned by Gibraltar’s Government. In any case, the information released about it should serve as a reminder that in a global, inter-connected, world, each maritime dispute may certainly be unique, but it makes sense to study them from a comparative perspective, among other reasons because in both diplomacy (including public diplomacy) and international legal and arbitration proceedings, anything considered as a precedent may be used to defend one’s position.

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. He tweets at Alex__Calvo and his work, which includes “China’s Air Defense Identification Zone: Concept, Issues at Stake and Regional Impact”, Naval War College Press Working Papers, No 1, US Naval War College, 23 December 2013, available here, can be found at https://nagoya-u.academia.edu/AlexCalvo

1Source kindly pointed out by Michael J. Sanchez, founder of OP-WEST. An interview with Sanchez, where he explains the origins and work of OP-WEST, is available at A. Calvo, “OP-WEST: Open Source Intel in Contested Maritime Spaces”, Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC), 1 April 2015, http://cimsec.org/op-west-open-source-intel-contested-maritime-spaces/15718

2 Tweet by @LukeDCoffey dated 18 August 2015.

3 Tweets by @JamesKraska dated 19 August 2015.