China’s Disregard for the International Rule of Law

Here’s William Nee’s first-rate essay on the insights into criminal “justice” in China offered by the Booksellers’ case.

Photo Credit: Flags of member nations flying at United Nations Headquarters ,   United Nations Photo , Flickr

Photo Credit: Flags of member nations flying at United Nations HeadquartersUnited Nations Photo, Flickr

I would only add: The Chinese Government can too often hide its disregard for international human rights standards as well as its own national laws. Yet we must continue to expose such violations as much as possible. For example, as John Kamm points out, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has once again condemned PRC criminal procedure abuses, on this occasion for the first time involving an American citizen.

This Tuesday’s decision by the UN arbitration tribunal in the Philippine maritime dispute with China will highlight another area in which the PRC has shown its contempt for the international rule of law. Unfortunately, in its defense, all too often the PRC is able to cite previous United States violations.

Chinese Think Tanks: Confidential Messengers and Idea Sources as Well as Spear Carriers for Their Government

Here is a noteworthy report by Isaac Stone Fish in Foreign Policy, Beijing Establishes a D.C. Think Tank, and No One Notices.

I would only add to this useful analysis the following: In their publications and public speeches, those who work at Chinese think tanks do indeed tend to be spear carriers for their government, with varying degrees of subtlety and effectiveness. Two opposing extremes were on view, for example, at the annual meeting of the American Society of International Law in Washington on April 2, where the South China Sea was discussed. Dr. (Ms.) HONG Nong made a gentle, respectable argument designed to elicit the attention, if not agreement, of the mostly American legal specialists present. The other Chinese speaker, injected into the panel as a result of pressure from the PRC government, proved a disaster who infuriated the crowd by his blatantly unfair efforts to attack the legitimacy of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea dispute resolution process. He reminded me of Molotov, the Hammer, in the good old days of Stalin.

What the thoughtful Foreign Policy article does not discuss is the valuable roles that Chinese think tanks play in conveying foreign information and ideas to PRC decision-makers and in quietly suggesting their own ideas for consideration. In the current Chinese political climate, the latter sometimes requires courage!

What might be the end game of the South China Sea arbitration?

Jerome A. Cohen

As the result of the arbitration case filed by the Philippines government against China on South China Sea questions is imminent, people are wondering how Beijing will react and what might happen next. I have offered the beginning of an answer in the speech I gave to the April 14 Soochow University comprehensive conference in Taipei on the issues involved (video below; link here).

My hope, of course, is that at some point after the decision is announced, the parties will resume negotiations on the basis of the tribunal’s decision concerning the fifteen or so issues before it. To save China’s face, there would be no need for explicit reference to the arbitration in any agreement that might emerge. There may be a fairly long period before the PRC decides to negotiate on the basis of the arbitration decision.

In the interim other claimants may bring their own arbitrations against China on similar or related issues. Each arbitration tribunal can render its own independent decision on the jurisdiction and the merits.

Can people imagine how things might look to China and the world, for example, if Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia each brought separate suits against China seeking to confirm the Philippine tribunal’s invalidation of the “9-dash line” and if in each case the five experts, who might be totally different from the arbitrators in each of the other proceedings, arrived at the same decision as the Philippine tribunal? The same thing might happen regarding the issue of whether any of the islands in question is entitled to an Exclusive Economic  Zone and continental shelf.

I like the Chinese phrase “xuyao yige guocheng” 需要一个过程 (everything requires a process, i.e., Rome wasn’t built in a day). During this period the other claimants might seek to use their arbitrations to obtain orders against China to cease their questionable “reclamations” pending the outcome of each case.

Of course, since my April 14 speech the Philippines has elected a new president, whose attitude and policy toward China are as yet unclear. It is rumored that, if no arbitration decision has been rendered before he takes office July 1, President Duterte might seek to negotiate a settlement with China and then withdraw the request for arbitration before the decision is announced, saving China’s face.

This video was filmed for a panel discussion in the International Conference on the South China Sea Disputes and International Law hosted by Taiwan's Soochow University School of Law in Taipei on April 14, 2016. For the program of the Conference, see

A biographical sketch of Mr Chen Guangcheng

I have written a short biographical sketch of Mr Chen Guangcheng, the blind “barefoot lawyer” who escaped post-prison house detention in China in 2013, sought refuge in the US embassy and eventually set foot in the US. This sketch has just been published in the Berkshire Dictionary of Chinese Biography, Vol. 4.

Those interested in how Beijing and Washington negotiated over Chen Guangcheng’s departure for the US can read Chen’s account in his book, The barefoot lawyer: A blind man’s fight for justice and freedom in China, as well as Hillary Clinton’s differing account in her own, Hard choices. I first offered my own, slightly different view of the Embassy portion of the negotiations in the Washington Post here and the Wall Street Journal here, based on long phone calls that Chen made to me during his stay in the Embassy.

A false choice between acceding to China’s excessive claims in the South China Sea and gunboat diplomacy: a third way is obvious!

By Jerome Cohen

Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s remarks on the South China Sea (SCS) on Saturday morning in Singapore have been under-analyzed. The rest of his day, spent with Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou, has distracted people from the more immediate challenge of the SCS.

Simon Winchester’s op-ed in New York Times helps us to regain focus. But what I find so infuriating is his assumption that the US is faced with a choice of either acceding to China’s “stealthy seizure of scores of barely visible islets and atolls “ or challenging its “admirable cunning” and “purloining” through risky gunboat diplomacy. No mention at all of the obvious option of challenging China’s actions and its vague but broad claims before the international legal tribunals of impartial experts established to settle disputed claims in a peaceful, civilized manner.

The Arbitral Tribunal in   Philippines v. China,  photo released by the  Permanent Court of Arbitration

The Arbitral Tribunal in Philippines v. China, photo released by the Permanent Court of Arbitration

Bravo for the Philippines, whose arbitration against China, which the PRC fears and rejects, is gradually approaching a climax that will shake up the current scene. As Manila has made clear, international legal institutions are the last resort of the weak against the strong.

Why can’t the great powers and their policymakers and commentators appreciate that international tribunals can prove very useful in resolving or at least shrinking many potentially dangerous disputes? Modi’s surprisingly wise acceptance of the arbitration decision largely favoring Bangladesh over India in their Bay of Bengal dispute is another illustration worth study. That is the way to keep the peace in hotly-contested areas.

Taiwan’s position on the South China Sea disputes: an emerging subtle policy

At least while President Ma remains in office, Taiwan is not remaining passive either politically or diplomatically re the South China Sea (SCS). Nor should we assume that its choice – during Ma or afterward – is limited to the two extreme options of either endorsing Beijing’s questionable and vague claims or surrendering Taiwan’s claims to the SCS under the mantle of the Republic of China (ROC).


A more subtle policy may be emerging, one that retains China’s territorial claims and the maritime boundaries that attach to them under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) while veering away from the 9-dash line and its controversial ambiguities that the Philippine UNCLOS arbitration tribunal may soon sweep away.

It is worth studying the statement issued October 31 by the ROC’s MOFA. The ROC seems to be clarifying its position, including some important differences with the Mainland. Although it rejects the Philippine UNCLOS arbitration tribunal’s jurisdiction as not binding upon it (after all, it has been excluded from the proceedings since it is excluded from UNCLOS), it repeatedly emphasizes that its claims are “based on UNCLOS”. It claims all the islands in dispute “as well as their surrounding waters”. It seems to be emphasizing “surrounding waters” as generally understood in international law (i.e., under UNCLOS) without invoking the 9-dash line’s most expansive view of what “surrounding waters” might mean if history were invoked to override UNCLOS. Moreover, it pointedly endorses freedom of navigation and overflight and implicitly fails to support the actions of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in converting mere reefs into islands by the manner in which it demonstrates that the feature that it has long occupied and developed, Itu Aba (unlike other contested features including Subi reef), is a real island that can be claimed as “territory” and has a 200-mile EEZ as well as a 12-mile territorial sea. Taiwan is trying to steer between Scylla and Charybdis.

One of Xi Jinping’s motives in meeting Ma may well be the desire to shore up virtually the only support the PRC thus far has elicited from other jurisdictions for its SCS claims. ROC defection from the 9-dash line, especially before the UNCLOS tribunal’s final decision, would leave the PRC without any respectable support for its Gargantuan appetite.   

What states should do to resolve the current “High Noon” scenario in the South China Sea: “bombard the headquarters” in Beijing with international law claims

by Jerome Cohen

Spratly Islands, South China Sea, by   Storm Crypt  .

Spratly Islands, South China Sea, by Storm Crypt.

The US began on October 27th its first freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) near China’s man-made islands in the South China Sea. This whole exciting story would be seen for the comic farce it is were the situation not so dangerous.

The US and China have put forth some legal claims with regard to their rights in the South China Sea. But neither major contender takes the obvious step to have the claims determined by the world’s greatest impartial experts in the subject. Although the US, by failing to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Law of Sea (UNCLOS), has deprived itself of the possibility of bringing an UNCLOS arbitration against China, as the Philippines has brilliantly done, it could offer to take the dispute to the International Court of Justice, where both Washington and Beijing have able judges, or to an ad hoc arbitration tribunal agreed to by both parties.

China has got itself out on a long and shaky limb. Its claim to “sovereignty” over these low-tide elevations is preposterous. Even if it had a plausible claim to these features as its “territory” and thus to a territorial sea around them, under UNCLOS (not China’s unilateral domestic law) it would still not be allowed to bar even warships from “innocent passage”, i.e., passage that is consistent with the detailed UNCLOS rules.

To be sure, the US makes no territorial claim for itself regarding sovereignty over the reefs in question, but it does apparently reject China’s claim and any claim by others that low-tide elevations can become the “territory” of any state. The US, as I have often said, should accompany its current bold gesture of using the fleet to protest China’s provocative over-reaching by also resorting to more conventional peaceful means of settling disputes through arbitration or adjudication.

We should also be persuading other states, including Japan, to “bombard the headquarters” of the CCP in Beijing, not with missiles but with missives daring the PRC to test its international law claims before tribunals of the world’s leading impartial experts.

Timing is everything in life, and my minimal hope is that the current “High Noon” scenario in the South China Sea will build slowly enough to be overtaken in a few months by the UNCLOS arbitration decision in the case brought by the Philippines against the PRC two and one-half years ago (see the October 29 UNCLOS Tribunal ruling to proceed to the merits of some claims and reserves the question of jurisdiction for others). Whatever the tribunal decides should shake up the current situation.


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. 

Can the Press get Chinese President Xi Jinping to answer an impromptu question?

by Jerome Cohen

Chinese President Xi Jinping arrived in Seattle on Tuesday for his first state visit to the US. Now that he is in America, can the press ask him unscripted questions? In fact, these visits from PRC leaders are staged to avoid direct, unapproved questions. Things are generally scripted to go smoothly and “avoid offense”. Yesterday’s WSJ interview, in writing (EnglishChinese), is generally the best one can get, and that is a coup. Even his dinner hosts will find it hard to find a moment for a real conversation. Former Prime Minister Zhu Rongji was a rare exception because he could field public questions, even in English, and often gave bold, off the cuff answers.