South China Sea Disputes: Lawfare instead of Warfare!

by Jerome Cohen

 Spratly Islands, South China Sea, by  Storm Crypt .

Spratly Islands, South China Sea, by Storm Crypt.

The US Navy is preparing to send a ship inside the 12-mile territorial sea China (the PRC) reportedly claims for its controversial man-made island chain in the South China Sea, according to this report

To defuse the rising tension in this area, the US and other countries should resort to international legal institutions, rather than warfare.

The US Senate should seize the opportunity presented by the heightened public interest in the Law of the Sea to finally ratify US adherence to The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). It would give us greater credibility by subjecting our country to the same dispute resolution constraints that all state-parties to UNCLOS, including the PRC, are legally bound to accept, and it would offer us what we are now denied – the opportunity to challenge PRC maritime claims before an impartial arbitration tribunal, as the Philippines has done.

The value of this opportunity should not be underestimated even if the PRC continues to formally thumb its nose at Manila’s challenge (while seeking to answer it outside the tribunal’s jurisdiction). I do not think most observers appreciate the momentous nature of the Philippine case, which seems to be coming to a head more quickly than previously anticipated. The tribunal’s decisions on jurisdiction and perhaps at least some of the substantive issues have the potential to be a game changer in an increasingly dangerous and uncertain situation. 

All the countries concerned with PRC maritime assertiveness need to respond to the South China Sea crisis with greater collaboration. But, in addition to focusing on political/military gestures, they should be “bombarding the headquarters” in Beijing with international arbitration and International Court of Justice (ICJ) claims that will test the PRC’s actions before respected international legal institutions.

Any hopes Beijing may have for “soft power”, already blocked by its domestic legal misconduct, will be obliterated if the world community condemns it for rejecting itsUNCLOS obligations re maritime issues and the ICJ or ad hoc tribunals for deciding territorial disputes. Only active collaboration by the various countries involved can bring these peaceful ways of settling disputes to the attention of Xi Jinping himself and stimulate reconsideration of the PRC’s current course.

Unfortunately, until now, although there is strong potential support in each of the relevant countries on China’s eastern and southern periphery for lawfare instead of warfare, each finds political reasons for passivity and avoiding Beijing’s wrath in the hope that the Philippines will be successful.  In the meantime, the PRC has been quietly using every means possible to terminate the Philippine effort before the tribunal reaches what may be a damaging decision for Beijing. Time is a factor here since there will be a new Manila administration by mid-2016, and the PRC’s blandishments and pressures might prove more effective with the new Manila power-holders than with the current government, which has already felt and thus far resisted their force.