State parties to the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea have a lawful and peaceful way to uphold the international rule of law and counter China’s disregard of a 2016 arbitral tribunal’s legally binding ruling on the South China Sea.
Latest in UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)
International Regulation of Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction: Negotiations on a New Legal Structure for the High Seas
For many who follow developments in the South China Sea, the July 2016 tribunal ruling in the Philippines’ case against China has become the equivalent of the birth of Jesus in the Gregorian calendar: Developments are considered B.A. and A.A.—Before Award and After Award.
In the first year after the award, compliance was fair: Beijing largely kept its actions, if not its words, within the letter of the ruling.
On January 11, Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson testified in his hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that perhaps the United States should deny China access to its artificial islands in the South China Sea. Tillerson is correct that in recent years the United States has forgotten basic lessons of deterrence when it comes to China and the South China Sea.
On December 16 a Chinese warship snatched a U.S. underwater drone literally from under the eyes of the crew of a U.S. survey ship. The USNS Bowditch is an unarmed naval oceanographic vessel that was recovering two underwater drones in the Philippine exclusive economic zone (EEZ), about 50 miles northwest of Subic Bay.
It has been two months since the UN Convention for the Law of the Sea arbitral tribunal issued its blockbuster award ruling against China’s maritime claims and activities in the South China Sea. Given all the buildup, it is remarkable how little has changed since the award was released. Was the award much ado about nothing? Not quite, or at least not yet. The award still matters, although the award’s continued significance depends almost entirely on the U.S. government’s reaction.
While substantial ink has been spilled (and continues to be spilled) over Russia’s de facto annexation of Crimea and South Ossetia, comparatively little attention has been paid to the Russia’s attempted expansion in the Arctic Ocean.
In the two weeks that have passed since the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) arbitral tribunal issued its award against China, no drastic actions have been taken by any of the key parties. China has not acted to further militarize or otherwise bolster its presence in the Spratlys, and the Philippines has not demanded immediate Chinese withdrawal. Bilateral negotiations may indeed occur.
U.S. Response to the South China Sea Arbitration and the Limits of the Diplomatic “Shamefare” Option
In a post last week, I argued that the recent UN Convention for the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) arbitral award against China opens the legal door to more aggressive U.S. freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) to directly challenge Chinese artificial islands in the South China Sea. This week, I turn to another possible U.S. response to the arbitral award: diplomatic “shamefare.”
One of the big takeaways from the South China Sea arbitration is that the high-tide features in the Spratly Islands are mere “rocks” under Article 121(3) of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea because they “cannot sustain human habitation or economic life of their own.” This means that even the largest islands within the group lack an exclusive economic zone and a continental shelf.