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.