Tag Archives: UNCLOS

Lessons from the Arctic for the South China Sea

By Daniel Thomassen 

Introduction

The maritime region centered on the South China Sea has been a vital international trade route and reservoir of natural resources throughout modern history. Today, its importance cannot be understated: half the volume of global shipping transits the area, competition for energy and fishing rights is intensifying between surrounding nations (with growing populations), commercial interests are increasing, and regional military spending increases lead the world. Rivalry over resources and security has triggered disputes about sovereignty and historical rights. China has used its increasing relative power to aggressively claim sovereign rights over two-thirds of the South China Sea within the so called “Nine-Dash Line.” Overlapping claims by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan are being dismissed and have sometimes resulted in armed confrontations. Furthermore, the construction of artificial islands and significant military installations on reefs and rocks is underpinning Chinese sea control ambitions within the “First Island Chain.” This deteriorating security environment threatens regional stability, adherence to international law, and the freedom of the seas. Furthermore, it has the potential to escalate into conflict far beyond the levels of militarization and skirmishes between fishing fleets, coastguards and navies seen so far.

The U.S. has been deeply involved in the creation and management of the East-Asian state system since World War II, contributing to its economic progress and security arrangements, which include alliances with the Philippines, Japan and South Korea. Thus, the regional interests of the United States include freedom of navigation, unimpeded lawful commerce, relations with important partners and allies, peaceful resolution of disputes, and the recognition of maritime rights in conformity with international norms and law (with the provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in particular).1 These principles are universally applicable and must be upheld every time and everywhere to be respected. Regional countries are now reconsidering the relevance and commitment of the balancing power of the U.S. in light of Beijing’s dismissal of American concerns and bilateral initiatives towards its smaller neighbors. 

The Arctic region similarly holds the potential for great power rivalry, but in contrast offers a good example of peaceful settlement and compromise. The diminishing ice cap is causing a growing emphasis on resources, international waterways, and commercial activity in the Arctic, where there are also competing claims and great power security interests represented. However, the Arctic nations have chosen to cooperate with regards to responsible stewardship and use UNCLOS and supplementing treaties as the legal basis. The cooperative framework is constituted by the Arctic Council, the agreed adherence to international law and arbitration tribunals, bilateral and multilateral treaties, demilitarized zones, Incident at Sea agreements, joint fisheries commissions, as well as the power balance between Russia and the NATO alliance. As a result, although there is potential for competition and diverging national interests, mutually beneficial compromises and diplomatic solutions to maintain stability and predictability are preferred.

Arctic Dispute and Resolution

Currently there are overlapping claims from Russia and Denmark for the seabed under the North Pole (Lomonosov and Alpha-Mendeleyev Ridges) under consideration by the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, and Canada is preparing another competing claim. These claims can further be used as a basis for bilateral agreements on maritime delimitations.  This was the case between Norway and Russia in 2010, and there are prospects of a similar agreement between Russia and Denmark. Such cooperative mechanisms, institutions and shared principles in the Arctic are far more robust than comparable efforts in the Southeast Asia, such as ASEAN or the “Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea.”

A map of claims on the Arctic seafloor. (Durham University)

The Svalbard Treaty of 1920 set a standard for international governance, and was a bold and forward looking concept when introduced almost 100 years ago.2 The archipelago was discovered by Dutch explorers in 1596, and resources were since extracted by Holland, England, Russia, and Scandinavians. Eventually, the major powers voluntarily conceded sovereignty over the islands to the young Norwegian state through a commission related to the Paris Peace Conference after World War I. The Treaty allows visa-free access for citizens of signatory states, equal rights to extract natural resources, freedom to conduct scientific activities, ensures environmental protection, and prohibits permanent military installations. This agreement exemplifies the feasibility of imposing restrictions on sovereign authority, the accommodation of the interests of the parties, and adherence to non-discrimination principles.

Episodes of Confrontation

Much like the South China Sea, there have been clashes between the coastal states in the Arctic. Between 1958-1961 and in 1976, there was a state of armed conflict and diplomatic breakdown between the United Kingdom and Iceland over fishing rights. 3 The Royal Navy escorted British fishing vessels to confront the Icelandic Coast Guard in the contested zone. Shots were fired, ships were rammed and seized, and fishing gear was cut loose from the ships in heated skirmishes. However, on both occasions it was the stronger power that stood down to the weaker, as Britain finally recognized Iceland’s right to protect its resources after significant international diplomacy that included the forming of UNCLOS.

Icelandic patrol ship ICGV Óðinn and British frigate HMS Scylla clash in the North Atlantic in 1973. (Wikimedia Commons)

Other minor events in the Arctic include the 1993 Loophole dispute between Norway and Iceland, 4 and Hans Island, the only unsolved territorial dispute, which is under negotiation between Canada and Denmark. 5 The successful diplomatic de-escalation of these cases is in stark contrast to the clashes between China and its rivals in events like the 2012 Scarborough Shoal standoff, 6 the 1995 occupation of Mischief Reef in the Spratlys, the 1988 battle over the Spratly Islands, the 1976 grab of the Paracel Islands, 7 and of course the blunt Chinese dismissal of the 2016 ruling from the International Arbitration Court against the legitimacy of the Nine-Dash Line claim. 8

China has mostly shown an uncompromising attitude in the South China Sea since the 1970s, without serious U.S.-led international efforts to check its use of force. But China too has occasionally demonstrated its willingness to forward claims to international arbitration bodies, such as its 2012 submission to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf regarding the East China Sea.9 However, that effort must be viewed in context of the ongoing efforts at the time to be accepted as observer in the Arctic Council.

Applying Arctic Lessons

The recent row between the Chinese and the U.S. Navy over an Unmanned Underwater Vehicle is symptomatic of the evolving problem, which must be addressed by the new administration in the White House. The South China Sea currently constitutes the primary global hotspot where major and regional powers’ vital interests and alliance commitments directly clash. A framework to manage this region must be negotiated by the two superpowers primarily and supported by the other involved nations. It requires the will to compromise and the pursuit of mutual interests while looking forward – a set-up which could benefit from the indicated transactional policy approach of President Trump. Any long-term solution would have to accommodate legitimate Chinese demands for security and resources. But, the U.S. must commit strongly by dedicating all available instruments of power (diplomatic, information, military, and economic measures) to impose negative consequences unless China is willing to negotiate from its strong position. Furthermore, the U.S. must uphold the same standards and make concessions itself.

It must therefore expediently ratify UNCLOS10 with its international tribunals and vow to respect the treaties that must be created to regulate sovereignty, demilitarization, commercial rights and responsibilities to protect fish stocks and the environment. Chinese concerns about the “One China Policy,” American forward basing, and policy on the Korean peninsula must also be on the table, as well as cooperation on regional trade agreements.

While state security can be achieved in the South China Sea through treaties, demilitarization, power balance and predictability, the conditions for prosperity flow from similar efforts. As demonstrated in the Arctic, good order at sea and responsible stewardship encourages investments and lay the foundation for cooperative ventures that are mutually beneficial. Uncontested sovereignty and fair trade regulations are incentives for developing expensive infrastructure necessary for harvesting resources under the seabed. The inevitable link connecting China and the U.S. is the economic dependency between the two largest economies in the world. So far, they have both unsuccessfully introduced regional free trade initiatives in order to create beneficial terms for themselves such as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership agreement and the Trans Pacific Partnership respectively. 11 An obvious flaw with these proposals is that they have excluded the opposite superpower. Since both countries are indispensable trading partners to most others, a cooperative effort to create trade agreements would benefit both and could not be ignored.

Although unresolved sovereignty issues in the South China Sea make it a tough case, there is a model to study and lessons to be learned in the cooperative management of the Arctic region (as well as the 1959 Antarctic Treaty and the 1936 Montreux Convention). However, controlling the impulses of a great power to dominate its surroundings requires a massive international diplomatic effort, creating alternative mutually beneficial conditions and a proper balancing of military power. Active U.S. presence and regional capability is fundamental to maintaining a balance and influencing the shaping of a cooperative environment. But first and foremost, there is a requirement for building trust and confidence through long term commitment to international cooperation, predictability and clear intentions. For a start, the good examples from the Arctic have been shared with China, Japan, India, the Republic of Korea and Singapore – all of which are involved or have vital interests in the South China Sea dispute – since they became observer states to the Arctic Council in 2013. Likewise, the U.S. can also benefit from its experience as an Arctic nation, and from the insight gained from holding the chairmanship of the Arctic Council since 2015. Moving forward, the Arctic offers successful governance lessons that can be applied to the South China Sea in order to maintain stability and ensure prosperity for all.

Daniel Thomassen is a Commander (senior grade) in the Royal Norwegian Navy. He is a Surface Warfare Officer serving as Commanding Officer of HNoMS Fridtjof Nansen (FFGH). He is a graduate of the Royal Norwegian Naval Academy (2002), U.S. Naval War College (2015), and holds an MA in International Relations from Salve Regina University (2015).

References

1. Jeffrey Bader, Kenneth Lieberthal, Michael McDevitt, “Keeping the South China Sea in Perspective”, Brookings, August 2014 https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/south-china-sea-perspective-bader-lieberthal-mcdevitt.pdf

2. Wallis, Arnold, Numminen, Scotcher and Bailes, “The Spitsbergen Treaty – Multilateral Governance In The Arctic”, Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe/Applied International Law Network, Arctic Papers Vol. 1, 2011 https://dianawallis.org.uk/en/page/spitsbergen-treaty-booklet-lauched

3. The Ultimate History Project, “A Serious Joke: Britain and Iceland Go to War”, http://www.ultimatehistoryproject.com/cod-war-britain-and-iceland-go-to-war-over-fishing.html

4. Thorir Gudmundsson, “Cod War on the High Seas – Norwegian-Icelandic Dispute Over Loophole Fishing in the Barents Sea”, Nordic Journal of International Law, 64: 557-573, 1995

5. Jeremy Bender, “2 countries have been fighting over an uninhabited island by leaving each other bottles of alcohol for over 3 decades,” Business Insider, 10. January 2016 http://www.businessinsider.com/canada-and-denmark-whiskey-war-over-hans-island-2016-1?r=US&IR=T&IR=T

6. Jane Perlez, “Philippines and China Ease Tensions in Rift at Sea”, The New York Times, 18. June 2012 http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/19/world/asia/beijing-and-manila-ease-tensions-in-south-china-sea.html

7. “Military Clashes in the South China Sea” http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/war/spratly-clash.htm

8. Matikas Santos, “Key points of arbitral tribunal’s verdict on PH-China dispute”, Inquirer, 12. July 2016 https://globalnation.inquirer.net/140947/key-points-arbitral-tribunal-decision-verdict-award-philippines-china-maritime-dispute-unclos-arbitration-spratly-islands-scarborough#ixzz4UQUrV9m3 

9. Submission by the People’s Republic of China Concerning the Outer Limits of the Continental Shelf beyond 200 Nautical Miles in Part of the East China Sea http://www.un.org/depts/los/clcs_new/submissions_files/chn63_12/executive%20summary_EN.pdf

10. Eliot L. Engel and James G. Stavridis, “The United States Should Ratify The Law Of The Sea Convention”, The Huffington Post, 11. July 2016 http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rep-eliot-engel/the-united-states-should_b_10930236.html

11. Lauren O’Neil, “Trade In Asia: The Liberalization Agenda – Where To From Here?”, Forbes, 13. December 2016

Featured Image: The Canadian Coast guard’s medium icebreaker Henry Larsen is seen in Allen Bay during Operation Nanook, in Nunavut on Aug. 25, 2010. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Military Activities on the Continental Shelf

This piece was originally published by the Lawfare Institute in Cooperation with Brookings and is republished with permission. Read it in its original form here.

By James Kraska

The recent Philippine-China Arbitration Award determined that China’s construction of artificial islands, installations and structures on Mischief Reef, Subi Reef, and Hughes Reef were unlawful interference with the Philippines’ exclusive sovereign rights and jurisdiction over the seabed of the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and continental shelf. Since the three features are low-tide elevations (LTEs), rather than islands, they are incapable of appropriation and are merely features of the Philippine continental shelf, albeit occasionally above water at high tide in their natural state. Although the tribunal’s legal judgment with regard to China’s activities was correct, its reasoning was a bit too categorical. This article adds further fidelity to the tribunal’s determination by distinguishing between lawful foreign military activities on a coastal state’s continental shelf, and unlawful foreign activities on the continental shelf that affect the coastal states sovereign rights and jurisdiction over its resources – a distinction that evaded the tribunal’s analysis.

It is important to understand the lawful scope of foreign military activity on the seabed of a coastal state’s EEZ or continental shelf, as the issue is likely to recur. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, for example, is exploring the idea of “upward falling payloads,” or pre-positioned containers or packages that lie on the ocean floor and wait until activated, at which time they “fall upward” into the water column to perform undersea missions, such as powering other unmanned systems. With some narrow exceptions, such as emplacement of seabed nuclear weapons or seabed mining, the use of the deep seabed is a high seas freedom enjoyed by all States. The more compelling question, however, is the extent foreign states may emplace naval devices or construct installations or structures on the continental shelf or within the EEZ of a coastal State for military purposes.

Article 56(1)(a) of UNCLOS provides that coastal States have certain “sovereign rights for the purpose of exploring and exploiting, conserving and managing the natural resources, whether living or non-living….” in the EEZ. Coastal States also have “jurisdiction as provided for in the relevant provisions [of UNCLOS] with regard to “(i) the establishment and use of artificial islands, installations, and structures.” Under Article 60, coastal States enjoy the “exclusive right” to authorize or regulate the construction of structures, a rule that is extended to the continental shelf by virtue of Article 80. Coastal State jurisdiction over artificial islands and structures is not all encompassing, however, and is limited to jurisdiction “as provided for in the relevant provisions [of UNCLOS].” The relevant provisions of the EEZ, of course, relate principally to exclusive coastal State sovereign rights and jurisdiction over living and non-living resources in the EEZ and on the continental shelf, and not sovereignty over the airspace, water column, or the seabed.

In the recent Philippine-China Arbitration Award, the tribunal determined that China’s artificial island construction on Mischief Reef was an unlawful violation of Philippine sovereign rights and jurisdiction over its continental shelf. Since Mischief Reef is a LTE and not a natural island, it constituted part of the Philippine continental shelf and seabed of the EEZ. China failed to seek and receive Philippine authorization for its artificial island construction, and therefore violated Articles 56(1)(b)(i), 60(1), and 80 of UNCLOS (Arbitration Award, para. 1016).

Foreign States, however, are not forbidden to construct installations and structures on a coastal State’s continental shelf per se. Only those installations and structures that are “for the [economic] purposes provided for in article 56” or that “interfere with the exercise of the rights of the coastal State” over its resources require coastal State consent. (See Article 60(1)(b) and (c)). 

But even if China converts its installations and structures into military platforms, their size and scope are so immense that they dramatically affect the quantity and quality of the living and non-living resources over which the Philippines has sovereign rights and jurisdiction. Although normally installations and structures that are built pursuant to military activities are not subject to coastal state consent, the industrial scale of Chinese activity lacks “due regard” for the rights and duties of the Philippines and its sovereign rights and jurisdiction over resources under Article 56 of UNCLOS.

If China had merely emplaced a small, unobtrusive military installation or structure on the seabed or landed an unmanned aerial vehicle at Mischief Reef as part of occasional military activities, it would not have been afoul of UNCLOS. Such incidental use of the seabed or an LTE (which is part of the seabed) are within the scope of permissible military activity in the same way as emplacement on the continental shelf of a small seabed military device. Foreign States may use the seabed for military installations and structures, and even artificial islands, as these purposes do not relate to exploring, exploiting, managing and conserving the natural resources. Only those military activities that rise to the level of or of sufficient are of such scale that they do not have “due regard” for the coastal state’s rights to living and non-living resources of the EEZ and continental shelf are impermissible.

The distinction is important because creation of the EEZ and recognition of coastal state sovereign rights and jurisdiction over the continental shelf was never envisioned to limit normal military activities. Current and future naval programs, in fact, may utilize a foreign coastal State’s seabed EEZ and continental shelf in a manner that is completely in accord with UNCLOS.

Where do we draw the line, however, between an insignificant presence and negligible interference that is lawful, and large-scale disruption that is unlawful? Like all legal doctrine, what constitutes genuine interference to coastal State sovereign rights and jurisdiction must be reasonable, i.e. not de minimis or trivial, but rather a substantial and apparent effect on the resources in the zone, as I discussed in Maritime Power and Law of the Sea. Emplacement of military devices or construction of military installations or structures in the EEZ and on the continental shelf of a coastal State must be judged by reasonableness, and not be of such scale or cross a threshold of effect that it interferes in a tangible or meaningful way with the coastal State’s resource rights.

China’s operation of military aircraft from a LTE is not a priori unlawful, any more than operation of military aircraft from a warship in the EEZ would be illegal. The reason that PLA Air Force military aircraft flights from the runway at Mischief Reef are objectionable and a violation of the Philippines’ coastal State rights is the magnitude of the activity and its effect on the living and non-living resources. Operation by a foreign warship of a small aerial vehicle that lands temporarily on an LTE, for example, would not be unlawful. Likewise, if a naval force emplaced a military payload inside a container and placed it on the seabed of the EEZ – that is, on the coastal State’s continental shelf – that would also be a lawful military activity.

James Kraska is Howard S. Levie Professor of International Law at the Stockton Center for the Study of International Law, U.S. Naval War College, Distinguished Fellow at the Law of the Sea Institute, University of California at Berkeley School of Law, and Senior Fellow, Center for Oceans Law and Policy, University of Virginia School of Law.

Featured Image: MARCH 10, 2016- Philippine Naval Ship, BRP Sierra Madre, sails near disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea (REUTERS/Erik De Castro)

Members’ Roundup: July 2016 Part One

By Sam Cohen

Welcome to Part One of the July 2016 members’ roundup. Through the first half of July, CIMSEC members examined several international maritime security issues, including the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling in the South China Sea, Russia’s continued air campaign against ISIS, the U.S. Navy’s procurement objectives for the Virginia-class submarine successor, and the United States’ position on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Here is a roundup of their writings. 

Mira Rapp-Hooper and Patrick Cronin, at War on the Rocks, provide an analysis on the long-anticipated Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling in the Philippines vs. China case over the South China Sea. Using a ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ format, the authors breaks down the different geopolitical and legal implications of the ruling, including potential Chinese responses, political fallout for China–Philippines relations, and the future of maritime and sovereignty claims in the South China Sea. The authors explain that for China to comply with the Court’s ruling it must not claim any water or airspace from the reefs it occupies or make a 12 nautical mile assertion from any claimed land features. With the ruling being highly unfavorable to China’s maritime objectives, the authors highlight that if Beijing begins to prioritize territorial claims while easing off claims to water and air, it would likely reflect a China looking to move beyond its defeat while saving face.

Armando J. Heredia at U.S. Naval Institute News, examines the tribunal’s decision from the perspective of Manila and how the recent election of Rodrigo Duterte as President of the Philippines will impact regional relations. He explains how the previous administration chose to accelerate the modernization process of the country’s military in response to increased hostility from China while opening the way for American forces to return to the Philippines through the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA). He notes that even under the modernization program the Philippines remain weak in terms of kinetic responses to a Chinese incursion. He also notes that any engagement by the Philippines would have to leverage the country’s poorly equipped Coast Guard, which lacks sufficient hulls to establish presence operations near disputed maritime regions and land features.

Jake Bebber, at the U.S. Naval Institute Blog, discusses the centrality of cyberspace operations in the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) strategy for long-term competition with the United States. He discusses aspects of informationized warfare and how the PLA is seeking to position its sources of information power to enable it to win a short, overwhelming victory for Chinese forces in a notional conflict. He notes that in response to China investing large amounts of time, energy, people and resources towards achieving the country’s cyberspace and information warfare objectives, the DoD must ensure that U.S. Cyber Strategy supports the force planning, training, and equipping of cyber forces while integrating advanced technology into information planning and acquisition.

Kyle Mizokami, at Popular Mechanics, provides an overview of Moscow’s decision to deploy the country’s only aircraft carrier to the Mediterranean to carry out airstrikes against the Islamic State until next year. Discussing some of the ship’s features, he explains that the ship’s propulsion system is unreliable and is so prone to breaking down that an oceangoing tugboat always accompanies it on long distance voyages. He also discusses the capabilities the carrier will deploy, including Su-33 air superiority fighters, Su-25UTG ground attack aircraft, and MiG-29KUB two-seater multi-role fighters.

Dave Majumdar, at The National Interest, discusses the U.S. Navy’s procurement objectives for the next-generation SSN(X) successor to the Virginia-class attack submarines. His article argues that one priority, permitting the Navy will have the technological know-how to do so, is to effectively turn the future attack submarine into an underwater platform for unmanned underwater vehicles (UUV). Another objective would be to eliminate noise-generating moving parts such as a propulsor or driveshaft in the propulsion system to decrease the possibility of detection in an increasingly competitive undersea environment.

Members at CIMSEC were also active elsewhere during the first part of July:

At CIMSEC we encourage members to continue writing, either here on CIMSEC or through other means. You can assist us by emailing your works to dmp@cimsec.org.

Sam Cohen is currently studying Honors Specialization Political Science at Western University in Canada. His interests are in the fields of strategic studies, international law and defense policy.

Featured Image: A view from the deck of the Russian carrier  Admiral Kuznetsov (Wikimedia commons)

US Department of State Seeks to Clarify Meaning of China’s 9-Dash Line: Finale

By Alex Calvo

This is the fifth installment in a five-part series summarizing and commenting the 5 December 2014 US Department of State “Limits in the Seas” issue explaining the different ways in which one may interpret Chinese maritime claims in the South China Sea. It is a long-standing US policy to try to get China to frame her maritime claims in terms of UNCLOS. Read part one, part two, part three, part four

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Whereas the assertion that China has not actually made a claim may not be shared by everybody, in particular given the language flowing from Beijing which the DOS report itself cites, the reference to the “high seas” between mainland China and some islands seems stronger proof that Beijing was not making a historic claim. However, we must again stress that this would be the case if we followed the prevailing interpretation of the law of the sea, but there is no reason why China should adhere strictly to it, and even less that Beijing should not have changed her mind since 1958, when she had little more than a coastal navy and her economy was closed and in tatters. It may be true, as the report notes, that the 1958 Declaration only made a historic claim to the Bohai (Pohai) gulf in northeastern China, but again this should perhaps be judged from a wider historical perspective. After 1949 the PRC took a much more uncompromising stance concerning its North-East than its South-East (and wider maritime) borders. With a pragmatic arrangement in place with the United Kingdom concerning Hong Kong, and a strong economic and political relation with the Soviet Union, it was at the other end of the country where, in 1950, Beijing (not without an intense internal debate given the state of the country), decided to resort to force to prevent the presence of hostile forces close to her border, intervening in the Korean War, pushing back the advancing Allied forces and reversing the impact of the Inchon landing, ultimately forcing a stalemate on the ground. In 1958, just five years after the Korean armistice, nearby waters may have thus been much more present in Chinese leaders’ minds. In addition, these were also the waters directly leading to Tianjin and Beijing, the venue for foreign interventions in both the Opium Wars and the Taiping Rebellion. It would not be until the late 1970s that China’s South-Eastern flank would begin to receive more attention, in part thanks to the rapprochement with the United States and in particular once economic growth and the country’s move to become a net energy and commodity importer turned the waters of the South China Sea into a vital venue and potential choke point. It is true that in December 1941 the loss of HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse in the South China Sea had enabled the Japanese to land in Malaya and ultimately conquer Burma, closing the last land route to besieged Nationalist China, but this did not result in a comparable imprint on China’s historical consciousness, among other reasons because the episode did not involve Chinese naval forces and was subsumed into a much larger, dramatic, and quickly-developing picture.

Vietnamese-Americans demonstrating against Chinese claims in the South China Sea. Note the banner in favor of US ratification of UNCLOS.
Vietnamese-Americans demonstrating against Chinese claims in the South China Sea. Note the banner in favor of US ratification of UNCLOS.

Rejecting the validity of a possible historic claim by China. Concerning whether, if China “Made a Historic Claim”, it would “have Validity”, the DOS paper insists that “such a claim would be contrary to international law”, stressing the limited degree to which UNCLOS recognizes this category of claims, as evidenced by its “text and drafting history”. The text argues that “apart from a narrow category of near-shore ‘historic’ bays” in Article 10, and “historic title” concerning “territorial sea boundary delimitation (Article 15)”, “modern international law of the sea does not recognize history as the basis for maritime jurisdiction”, citing the Gulf of Maine ICJ case. It also underlines the fact that UNCLOS provisions concerning the EEZ, continental shelf, and the high seas “do not contain any exceptions for historic claims” to the detriment of coastal states and all estates enjoying certain freedoms. Concerning fisheries, the report acknowledges that UNCLOS refers to “the need to minimize economic dislocation in States whose nationals have habitually fished” in the EEZ (Article 62(3)) and to “traditional fishing rights and other legitimate activities” (Article 51), but restricts the impact to the possible granting by one state to another of fisheries resources “based on prior usage”. The text stresses that no such traditional fishing practices can “provide a basis for sovereignty, sovereignty rights, or jurisdiction,” adding that UNCLOS rules on oil and gas development contain no “exception for historic rights in any context.” Again we note how a purely legal report like this may be missing part of the picture, given the great importance that fishing vessels have in the ongoing conflict over the South China Sea, where they are one of the pillars of asymmetric naval warfare.

Chinese scholars Gao and Jia have argued that UNCLOS does not regulate “historic title” and “historic rights,” which fall instead under the purview of general international law. In their view, UNCLOS “was never intended, even at the time of its adoption, to exhaust international law. On the contrary, it has provided ample room for customary law to develop and to fill in the gaps that the Convention itself was unable to fill in 1982” as clear from its preamble, which reads “matters not regulated by this Convention continue to be governed by the rules and principles of general international law.” The DOS report explicitly rejects this position, saying that “it is not supported by international law” and goes against the “comprehensive scope of the LOS Convention.” Experts like Mark Valencia, on the other hand, hold that China’s posture may be compatible with the international law of the sea.

The text does not stop at arguing that it is not open to a state to make historic claims based not on UNCLOS but on general international law, laying down a second line of defense. It explains that, “even assuming that a Chinese historic claim in the South China Sea were governed by ‘general international law’ rather than the Convention,” it would still be invalid since it would not meet the necessary requirements under general international law, namely “open, notorious, and effective exercise of authority over the South China Sea,” plus “continuous exercise of authority” in those waters and “acquiescence by foreign States” in such exercise of authority. Furthermore, it explains that the United States, which “is active in protesting historic claims around the world that it deems excessive,” has not protested “the dashed line on these grounds, because it does not believe that such a claim has been made by China,” with Washington choosing instead to request a clarification of the claim. Whether this view is also meant to avoid a frontal clash with Beijing, in line with the often state policy goal of “managing” rather than “containing” China’s rise, is something not discussed in the text.

The report concludes by criticizing another view put forward by Gao and Jia, namely the relevance of claims made before the advent of UNCLOS. While these two scholars argue that “In the case of the South China Sea as enclosed by the nine-dash line, China’s historic title and rights, which preceded the advent of UNCLOS by many years, have a continuing role to play,” the DOS paper says that “The fact that China’s claims predate the LOS Convention does not provide a basis under the Convention or international law for derogating from the LOS Convention,” adding that “permitting States to derogate from the provisions of the Convention because their claims pre-date its adoption is contrary to and would undermine” the convention’s “object and purpose” stated in its preamble to “settle … all issues relating to the law of the sea.”

Conclusions. Long-standing American policy towards China stresses the need to manage the latter’s rise, so that it does not threaten the post-Second World War system, based among others on freedom of navigation and a ban on territorial expansion as a legitimate causus belli. As a result, Washington has often called on Beijing to clarify her claims on the South China Sea, in an attempt to constrain them while avoiding a frontal clash. This position also seeks to reinforce the perception that the United States focuses on the rule of law at sea, rather than on supporting one claimant against the other over disputed waters. The DOS document, in line with this approach, carefully dissects Chinese claims, analyzing whether they may be compatible with standard American interpretations of international Law of the Sea. The conclusions are rather pessimistic, exposing how, despite having ratified UNCLOS, the Convention’s provisions are not seen in the same light by Beijing and Washington. This should not surprise us, since international law seeks to constrain power but at the same time it is shaped by it, thus as countries rise they seek to play a greater role in the fate of rules and principles. In the case of China this is even clearer due to historical perceptions that it was to a large extent seaborne power which subjected the country to a semi-colonial status for a whole century. If Beijing’s claims in the South Chinese Sea cannot be seen in the light of UNCLOS, the question arises what ultimate Chinese goals are. Could this be the subject of a future paper by the Department of State? Or does Washington prefer to wait until the international arbitration case launched by Manila concludes? While the second option seems more likely, as time goes by the idea that China’s rise may be shaped, rather than constrained, increasingly seems less and less realistic. However, if the time comes to draw a line in the sand, a whole of government effort will be needed, going beyond the naval circles that to date have been most vocal in articulating the need to resist Chinese expansion.

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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