Sonya Sceats
Associate Fellow, International Law
Despite its dramatic rejection of the South China Sea arbitration case initiated by the Philippines, China is gearing up to play a much larger role in the evolution of the international legal system.
A vendor in Beijing stands behind a map including an insert depicting the 'nine-dash line' in the South China Sea. Photo by Getty Images.A vendor in Beijing stands behind a map including an insert depicting the 'nine-dash line' in the South China Sea. Photo by Getty Images.

It is tempting to read China's refusal in this case to acknowledge the jurisdiction of the arbitral tribunal in The Hague as the defiance of an arrogant superpower that views itself as above international law. No doubt many in Manila, Washington and elsewhere are purveying this view. But there is more here than meets the eye.

For decades, Beijing has complained that the global order was forged in an era when China was weak and the rules of the game are rigged against it.

But this lament is more difficult to sustain in relation to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which China helped negotiate in the 1970s and early 1980s. Beijing signed the treaty as soon as it was opened for signature in 1982 and ratified it in 1996.

The Philippines initiated this arbitration against China in 2013 as part of a long-running dispute over rights in the South China Sea, including over the Spratly Islands (known as the 'Nansha Islands' in China) and surrounding maritime areas. 

Under the treaty, China is not obliged to defend the case but this is no bar to proceedings and it remains legally bound by the award. From a legal perspective, its refusal to participate is thus a risky move, all the more so since the ruling is likely to have legal ramifications for China's highly charged maritime disputes with other neighbours such as Vietnam and Malaysia.

It is well known that the legal proceedings launched by the Philippines sparked a contest of ideas in Beijing. Behind closed doors, some Chinese international lawyers argued that China should prove its commitment to the international rule of law by vigorously fighting its corner in the arbitration. The defeat of these liberal voices is usually interpreted as an inevitable effect of the nationalists' grip on power under President Xi Jinping.

In a significant concession to those on the losing side of the argument, however, China published a position paper setting out its objections to the jurisdiction of the tribunal and formally conveyed this to the tribunal which treated it as ‘effectively constituting a plea on jurisdiction’.

This novel form of ‘non-participating participation’ must be seen against the backcloth of a strategic ambition by China to develop a greater mastery of international law. At an important meeting just two months earlier, the Communist Party called for China to strengthen its ‘discourse power and influence in international legal affairs’ and use legal methods to safeguard its ‘sovereignty, security and development interests’.

Our research team at Chatham House has been tracking impressive steps by China to realize this goal, including new government decision-making machinery designed to promote compliance with international law, a hiring spree of international lawyers and new advisory committee for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, promotion of scholarship and efforts to show norm leadership especially in ‘new domains’ of international law such as cyber law, and a training programme to share growing Chinese international law expertise with the global South.

We know from Chinese colleagues that maritime disputes are a major impetus for this drive. For years, the Chinese government has fretted about its low capabilities in the international legal field, compared with other permanent members of the UN Security Council and regional rivals such as Japan. Now, impelled by the need to protect its strategic interests in the South China Sea and elsewhere, it is doing something about it.

It may seem paradoxical in light of its bullish attacks on the Philippines and even the tribunal itself, but China's boycott of the arbitration should also be seen as a manifestation of its low confidence in its own capacities in the realm of international law. Speculation is rife that the leadership lacks faith in its ability to convince the tribunal of the legal validity of its controversial ‘nine dash line’ demarcation of China's rights in the South China Sea.  

In the arbitration and otherwise, China has avoided clarifying the precise legal basis and implications of its ‘nine dash line’ claims while sponsoring a vast industry of academic studies to support its position.

In the meantime, China is playing to its strengths, including its deep pockets, in pursuing an extrajudicial approach. An audacious programme of land reclamation and militarization of atolls and escalating patrols and exercises in disputed territories is a clear effort to alter ‘the facts on the water’. And in recent months it has choreographed statements of political support for its South China Sea claims from a motley crew of states with economic ties to China.

While China's rejection of the South China Sea arbitration is true to form for a powerful state that, like its great rival the United States, is generally ill-disposed towards binding international dispute resolution processes, it is not inconceivable that this approach will give way when China becomes more confident in its ability to play and win at ‘law fare’, as we are already seeing in the context of World Trade Organization disputes. Until then, in time-honoured fashion, Beijing is biding its time, plugging its skills gap and hoping it can shake off mounting reputational damage from its petulant spurning of these proceedings.

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