On Monday 14 May 2018 the Chinese Journal of International Law, an Oxford University Press journal, published an extraordinary 500 page “Critical Study” of the Awards on jurisdiction and the merits in the South China Sea Arbitration between the Philippines and China. Readers will recall the case was brought under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) by the Philippines against China and that there was an awards on jurisdiction in 2015 and a final award on the merits in 2016 (discussed in many places including here, here, here, here and here). The Critical Study was produced by the joint efforts of some 70 scholars and is listed as having been authored by the Chinese Society of International Law (CSIL). It examines almost every issue raised in the case – and several that weren’t – and concludes the Tribunal was catastrophically wrong on every single point, right down to how many times the Philippines was allowed to amend its pleadings.
The extent to which the Critical Study manages to strike a temperate and balanced tone towards the Awards made by the arbitral tribunal is summed up in the introduction:
“These awards are not conducive to solving the dispute between China and the Philippines in the South China Sea; instead, they have complicated the related issues. They have impaired the integrity and authority of [UNCLOS], threaten to undermine the international maritime legal order, run counter to the basic requirements of the international rule of law, and also imperilled the interests of the whole international community” [para 5].
Like pirates, the Tribunal members it seems are close to hostes humani generis and their award a threat to international legal order. The other blow to any semblance of academic neutrality in the book-length Critical Study is the one issue it studiously chooses not to address: China’s refusal to participate in proceedings. The Critical Study, while challenging almost every other paragraph of the award is entirely silent as to the Tribunal’s plainly correct finding that China – even if it disputed jurisdiction – was bound by its voluntary membership of UNCLOS to participate in proceedings. Further, UNCLOS makes clear China was bound by the result of such proceedings, even in the event of non-appearance. Indeed, this is why in UNCLOS cases where the UK and France disputed jurisdiction, for example, they have nonetheless shown up to make the argument.
In any event, the Critical Study raises a number of very interesting questions both in terms of the legal arguments it makes and in the simple fact of its existence. In the remainder of this (unfortunately long) post I would like to offer some brief and necessarily initial observations on following issues:
- First, what is the significance of the critical study as an intervention in the debates about the South China Sea award, and what does it tell us about Chinese approaches to international law?
- Second, is there any merit to the substantive legal arguments advanced by the Critical Study? (And what do these arguments tell us about Chinese approaches to international law?) I will put aside here the issues of both jurisdiction and the legal definition of islands capable of generating significant maritime zones (on which reasonable minds have differed) and focus on arguments regarding Chinese historic rights in the South China Sea and whether the Spratley Islands can be considered an archipelago.