In coronavirus pandemic, China defies international law in the South China Sea–Part I

ENGLISH AND FRENCH

Three recent articles describe China’s recent actions in the South China Sea, which appear to violate international law and an authoritative and binding Arbitration Award handed down in 2016, pursuant to the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention, to which China is a Party.  The South China Sea Arbitration Award held that China’s claims to the South China Sea, and in particular to the area inside the so-called “Seven-Dash Line”, were not supported by international law. The first two articles are summarized and excerpted below. The third article will be presented in Part II.

The first article, by Robert A. Manning and Patrick M. Cronin, writing for Foreign Policy, describes the overall framework and specific moves that China has been taking during the coronavirus pandemic to assert its power in the region, during a period of perceived strategic inattention. “Beijing’s efforts are approaching an irretrievable tipping point,” they assert.

In the second article, Bruno Philip, writing in Le Monde, describes in detail both the context and the specific actions China has taken during the pandemic “to fill the void” left by other countries’ inattention and distraction. He notes that these actions violate the 2016 Arbitration Award and international law, which has led to sharp responses by some of the other states with claims in the South China Sea.

In the third article, Stefan Kornelius, in an opinion piece in the Süddeutsche Zeitung, places these recent developments in the broader context of growing U.S.-Chinese antagonism and open hostility. He raises the possibility that tensions could lead to a military showdown, whether in the South China Sea or in relation to Taiwan. Europe is caught in the middle, he asserts, but can play a positive role by not caving in to pressures from either side, and by resolutely defending its values. Kornelius concludes that while this will entail significant economic costs, given economic relationships between various European countries and China, ultimately what is at stake are values and democracy.

Excerpts from Kornelius’ article will be reproduced in Part II.

For the detailed arguments in each of the first two articles, see

(1)  Robert A. Manning and Patrick M. Cronin, “Under Cover of Pandemic, China Steps Up Brinkmanship in South China Sea; Beijing has increased pressure on its nervous neighbors in its quest to dominate the entire South China Sea,” Foreign Policy, May 15, 2020 (11:44 a.m.).

Manning and Cronin report:

While the world is distracted by the coronavirus pandemic, China has been quietly taking paramilitary and political-legal actions in the South China Sea that could be game-changing for the region. Betting that the United States is focused elsewhere and exhausted from years of Chinese encroachments, Beijing’s efforts are approaching an irretrievable tipping point. China aims to coerce its maritime neighbors to abandon their claims and territorial rights under international law and irrevocably alter the status quo. Beijing seeks to impose its so-called nine-dash line, an unrecognized boundary it has drawn around 85 percent of the South China Sea, almost all of it in international waters, and through which $3.4 trillion in shipped goods pass each year—freely, at least for now.

A bit like Russia in Crimea, Beijing is creating facts on the ground. China’s claims to the disputed islets and reefs encompassing the Paracel and Spratly islands—which it calls Xisha and Nansha, respectively—have a questionable basis in international law and are based instead on an oval-shaped series of dashes drawn on (a) map of the South China Sea…

Interestingly, under the provisions of the Law of the Sea Treay, to which China is a Party, an international arbitration panel held in 2016 that China’s claims to the South China Sea had no basis under international law. China is legally bound to abide by the Arbitration panel’s decision, but instead has defied it and is firmly set on a course in defiance with international law including the rules embodied in the U.N. Law of the Sea Convention.

On the Arbitration Award, see the authoritative account by Bernard H. Oxman, “The South China Sea Arbitration Award,” 24 U. Miami Int’l & Comp. L. Rev.235; download available at: http://repository.law.miami.edu/umiclr/vol24/iss2/4.

(2)  Bruno Philip, “Pékin profite de la pandémie mondiale pour renforcer ses positions en mer de Chine du Sud; Les manœuvres chinoises répétées ont suscité une vaste réprobation de la part de ses proches voisins et des Etats-Unis,” Le Monde, le 15 mai 2020 (mis à jour à 19h44).

Phillip provides rich detail regarding what appear to be China’s illegal activities in the South China Sea, including its recent seizure of fishing boats. He also points out, succinctly, that these activities are in apparent violation of the Arbitral Tribunal’s 2016 decision holding China’s claims to have no basis in international law.

Alors que la montée en puissance chinoise dans la région ne cesse de croître depuis plusieurs années, de tout derniers développements illustrent la volonté pékinoise de s’engouffrer dans la « brèche » stratégique que le Covid-19 semble avoir creusée en cette période d’incertitude globalisée. Le 3 mars, un bâtiment des garde-côtes chinois éperonne et coule un navire de pêcheurs vietnamien dans le secteur des îles Paracels, disputées entre Pékin et Hanoï (et occupées par les Chinois depuis 1974.) L’équipage de huit hommes est ensuite capturé ainsi que les marins de deux autres bateaux vietnamiens venus à la rescousse de leurs compatriotes. Tous seront relâchés un peu plus tard.

Toujours en mars, les Chinois installent deux « centres de recherche » sur les récifs de Fiery Cross et de Subi situés dans les îles Spratleys, dans une zone revendiquée par les Philippines et le Vietnam…. Ces deux récifs sont des îles artificielles « poldérisées » sur lesquelles les Chinois ont construit, il y a quelques années, des pistes d’atterrissage d’une longueur de 3 000 mètres où des avions de chasse et des bombardiers peuvent atterrir.

En avril, la pression pékinoise n’a pas faibli : un bateau des garde-côtes de Malaisie signale la présence, dans leurs eaux territoriales, du navire chinois Haiyang Dizhi 8. La zone où patrouille ce « navire sondeur » est proche de celle où croise un bateau d’exploration malaisien pour le compte de Petronas, la compagnie pétrolière d’Etat….

Toujours en avril, le régime pékinois annonce que les îles Paracels et Spratleys, qui recouvrent l’ensemble des territoires disputés de la mer de Chine du Sud, seraient désormais placées sous la tutelle administrative de deux nouveaux districts, du nom de Xisha et Nansha, eux-mêmes rattachés à la ville de Sansha, dans le sud de l’île méridionale d’Hainan. Un pas de plus vers une tentative de contrôle global d’un vaste espace maritime où, selon les cartes du site de l’Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, un centre de recherche et d’analyse basé à Washington, le Vietnam, les Philippines et la Malaisie occupent cependant encore à eux trois une vingtaine d’îles, d’îlots et autres « rochers » partiellement submergés.

La Chine démontre de longue date un total mépris à l’égard de ces dernières : en 2016, la Cour permanente d’arbitrage de La Haye avait conclu, après avoir été saisie par Manille, que la revendication chinoise sur l’ensemble de la mer de Chine méridionale n’avait « aucun fondement juridique ». La même cour avait accusé Pékin de « violer les droits souverains des Philippines » en envoyant des bateaux « commettre des actes illicites » dans l’archipel. La Chine avait rejeté le verdict, l’estimant « nul et non avenu », comme le rapporta alors l’agence de presse Chine nouvelle.

Bruno Philip est le correspondant du Monde en Asie du Sud-Est, à Bangkok.

See Part II, here.

The Trenchant Observer

About the Author

The Observer
"The Trenchant Observer" is edited and published by The Observer, an international lawyer who has taught International Law, Human Rights, and Comparative Law at major U.S. universities, including Harvard, Brandeis, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Kansas. He is a former staff attorney at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States (IACHR), where he was in charge of Brazil, Haiti, Mexico and the United States, and also worked on complaints from and reports on other countries including Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. As an international development expert, he has worked on Rule of Law, Human Rights, and Judicial Reform in a number of countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and the Russian Federation. In the private sector, The Observer has worked as an international attorney for a leading national law firm and major global companies, on joint ventures and other matters in a number of countries in Europe (including Russia and the Ukraine), throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and in Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, China and Japan. The Trenchant Observer blog provides an unfiltered international perspective for news and opinion on current events, in their historical context, drawing on a daily review of leading German, French, Spanish and English newspapers as well as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and other American newspapers, and on sources in other countries relevant to issues being analyzed. The Observer speaks fluent English, French, German, Portuguese and Spanish, and also knows other languages. He holds an S.J.D. or Doctor of Juridical Science in International Law from Harvard University, and a Doctor of Law (J.D.) and a Master of the Science of Law (J.S.M.), from Stanford University. As an undergraduate, he received a Bachelor of Arts degree, also from Stanford, where he graduated “With Great Distinction” (summa cum laude) and received the James Birdsall Weter Prize for the best Senior Honors Thesis in History. In addition to having taught as a Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, The Observer has been a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University's Center for International Affairs (CFIA). His fellowships include a Stanford Postdoctoral Fellowship in Law and Development, the Rómulo Gallegos Fellowship in International Human Rights awarded by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and a Harvard MacArthur Fellowship in International Peace and Security. Beyond his articles in The Trenchant Observer, he is the author of two books and numerous scholarly articles on subjects of international and comparative law. Currently he is working on a manuscript drawing on the best articles that have appeared in the blog.

1 Comment on "In coronavirus pandemic, China defies international law in the South China Sea–Part I"

  1. Michael Mauldin | May 20, 2020 at 9:04 am |

    Seems there is a virus going around. The virus I’m speaking of is the “hell-with-the-law” virus. In the USA the virus is showing up in the rebellion of people at all levels in and outside of the government deciding that the law does not apply to them. So it is no surprise that on the world stage we see the same virus at work. Is there a vaccine for this? Apparently not, so the virus may indeed run its course…killing millions.

Comments are closed.