[New Article] Law and Power in China’s International Relations

By Jerome A. Cohen

I've just uploaded on my SSRN another recent article —"Law and Power in China’s International Relations," which is slated to appear in the New York University Journal of International Law and Politics (JILP) in the Summer of 2019.

This article follows the line of investigation in my 1974 two-volume book co-authored with the late Professor Chiu Hung-dah, People's China and International Law: A Documentary Study, which looked into China's attitudes towards international law. Of course, the book was published in a time when scholars had a challenge finding sources about China's theory and practice of international law in certain respects. Now we're confronted with a different challenge, which is how to thoroughly and thoughtfully investigate an expansive China as it is taking on an increasingly active role in the international arena. I hope that this article offers an up-to-date summary of some important aspects worth considering. I'm pasting the abstract below. Comments are welcome!

Law and Power in China’s International Relations

New York University Journal of International Law and Politics (JILP), Vol. 52, 2019 (forthcoming 2019)

33 Pages Posted:

Jerome A. Cohen

Date Written: April 17, 2019

Abstract

This Article offers a much-needed updated examination of China’s resort to international law in its international relations, one of the most important and controversial topics facing today’s world. The Article analyzes a range of significant subjects concerning China’s contemporary theory and practice, including its WTO experience, territorial and maritime disputes, bilateral agreements concerning civil and political rights and multilateral human rights treaties. Noting that the current rules-based order appears unable to significantly restrain the exercise of China’s growing power, I argue that Beijing’s present attitude toward international law, which thus far seeks piecemeal changes issue by issue, may be in transition, inching gradually toward a more innovative, broader approach that shapes international law in ways that some observers see as resurrecting traditional China’s prominence in East Asia and that others fear reflect even grander ambitions. China’s growing power, however, is not as securely-based as widely-assumed, and we should not underestimate the extent to which China’s views are influenced by its interactions with the United States and its perception of American practice of international law.

Keywords: China, international law, WTO, territorial disputes, maritime disputes, bilateral agreements, human rights treaties, US-China relations

Settling law of the sea disputes: international law is better than gunboats!

By Jerome A. Cohen

Subi Reef, May 2015, by United States Navy [Public domain], via  Wikimedia Commons

Subi Reef, May 2015, by United States Navy [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Here’s a piece from the WSJ on French warships asserting freedom of navigation in international waters in the South China Sea—The French Navy Stands Up to China. It may be helpful to emphasize that the location of the ship, airplane, other object or person in question is indeed a critical fact in these disputes. It’s like the secret of success in the hotel business— “location, location, location.”

More broadly, we also should not overlook the obvious, yet seldom-mentioned, fact that the disputing nations have peaceful means at their disposition to settle their many conflicting claims to territory, maritime boundaries and United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) interpretations. Negotiation, mediation, arbitration, and adjudication are all set forth in the UN Charter, and UNCLOS and other pieces of international legislation provide details regarding the possibilities. It is not good enough for the U.S., China, France and others to employ gunboats to vaguely raise their claims in a threatening manner.

The Philippines, in its stunning arbitration claims against China, did try to resort to law and a decision by some of the world’s acknowledged independent legal experts in order to defend itself against a much stronger power. The durability and significance of the UNCLOS tribunal’s monumental arbitration award against China is now being tested, especially by a Chinese Government that is seeking to undermine the award in multiple ways.

The U.S. should ratify UNCLOS and subject itself to the UNCLOS compulsory dispute resolution procedures, as other states have. It would be good if Vietnam, Malaysia and other claimants were to challenge China to settle their disputes over who owns the Spratlys before the International Court of Justice. It would be good if Japan, whose Foreign Minister did challenge China to settle their Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute in the East China Sea before the ICJ in 2012, would also challenge some of China’s law of the sea actions and interpretations via the UNCLOS dispute resolution procedures, in the South China Sea as well as the East China Sea. And Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and others should also resort to those procedures to settle their various maritime claims. France should also explore its legal possibilities for contributing to peaceful settlement.

Since the U.S. has shamefully not ratified UNCLOS, that treaty’s procedural options are denied to Washington, which can only coach from the sidelines. In the long run Asian states may want to develop their own regional institutions for handling these problems, but they can do a lot even now. Gunboats are not the only weapons. We can and should make better use of the “weapons” of international law to help settle increasingly dangerous disputes.