Following is an excerpt from my discussion in the recently concluded 5th Annual Meeting of the Japan Society of International Law held last June 15, 2014 at Chuo University in Tokyo.
China’s snub of the Philippine arbitral claim on the West Philippine Sea and its slew of building projects on disputed reefs in the area are aserious and belligerent violations of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), to which it is a party.
Its refusal to participate in the arbitration and its unilateral acts in building artificial islands in the disputed maritime area of the Spratlys constitute a serious breach of the UNCLOS. As a party to the Convention, China agreed to refer all matters involving interpretation and application of the UNCLOS to the compulsory and binding dispute settlement procedure of the Convention.
The international community took a very long time to agree on the provisions of UNCLOS because all countries of the world wanted the Convention to be the “constitution for the seas”. By prohibiting reservations and by adopting all provision on the basis of consensus, it was the intention of the world community to do away with the use of force and unilateral acts in the resolution of all disputes arising from maritime territory.
The view expressed recently by Judge Xue Hanquin, the Chinese Judge in the International Court of Justice, that states that made declarations when they ratified the UNCLOS, China included, are “deemed to have opted out of the dispute settlement procedure of the Convention” is erroneous. Proof of this is that China subsequently made reservations only as to specific subject matters from the jurisdiction of the dispute settlement procedures. This proves that China agreed to be bound by the procedure and hence, it is under a very clear obligation to participate in the proceedings, if only to dispute the jurisdiction of the Tribunal.
More worrisome is China’s recent resort to the use of force in bolstering its claim to the disputed territories.
It has been reported recently that China has been building artificial islands in Johnson South Reef and expanding its artificial island in Fiery Cross reef, and deploying its naval forces to ward off any opposition.
These construction are happening in the face of China’s snub of the arbitral proceedings which precisely impugns China’s legal rights to do so. Clearly, China’s conduct is not only illegal as prohibited use of force, but is also contemptous of the proceedings.
The Philippines initiated proceedings under the UNCLOS dispute settlement procedure to declare that China’s nine-dash lines is illegal since it is not sanctioned by the UNCLOS. The Philippine claim also asked the Hague-based arbitral tribunal that four “low-water elevations,” so-called because they are only visible during low tide, and where China has built artificial islands, be declared as part of the continental shelf of the Philippines, and that the waters outside of the 12 nautical miles of Panatag shoal be declared as part of the Philippine Exclusive Economic Zone.
China’s claim is that the waters within the nine-dash lines are generated by land territory and hence, the controversy cannot be resolved under the UNCLOS. But clearly, the three specific prayers of the Philippines involve only issues of interpretation and application of specific provisions to UNCLOS relating to internal waters, territorial sea, Exclusive Economic Zones, islands, and low tide elevations. While the Spratlys dispute without a doubt also involves land territory, this is not the subject of the Philippines’ claim.
The Chinese academic in the conference, Prof. Zhang Xinjun of Tsinghua University, characterized the Philippine arbitral claim as a “mixed claim” because it involves both claims to sovereignty arising from land territory and not just purely maritime territory. This, he explained, is why the UNCLOS arbitral tribunal lacks jurisdiction over the Philippine claim. He likened the Philippine proceeding to that initiated by Mauritius against the United Kingdom. In this case, which is also pending, the UK has argued that the dispute settlement proceedings of UNCLOS should not apply because the disputed maritime territory are generated by land territory.
The Japanese academic, Prof. Nishimoto Kentaro of Tohoku University, on the other hand, expressed reservations whether the Philippines could prevail in impugning China’s title to all four islands where it has built artificial islands, two of which the Philippines claims, should form part of its continental shelf. The Japanese academic observed that since two of these islands are within the 200 nautical miles of Ito Iba Island, currently under the control of Taiwan, these two may not be declared as part of the international sea bed.
He supported, however, the Philippines’ position on the nine-dash lines arguing that in seeking a declaration of nullity of these lines, the Philippines was not engaged in maritime delimitation, but in an action for a declaration of rights, which is an issue of interpretation and application of the UNCLOS. He characterized the Philippines position against the Nine-Dash lines as “very strong”.
Japan is also engaged in its own territorial dispute with China over Senkaku Island.