Associate Fellow, International Law Programme

Despite its refusal to participate in the South China Sea arbitration, China’s attitude towards international dispute settlement is evolving towards greater acceptance and engagement in other contexts.

A Filipino fisherman operates around Scarborough Shoal, South China Sea, near a Chinese coast guard ship on 13 December 2016. Photo: The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images.A Filipino fisherman operates around Scarborough Shoal, South China Sea, near a Chinese coast guard ship, on 13 December 2016. Photo via Getty Images.

Summary

  • International dispute settlement provides a means for states to settle disputes in a peaceful manner. China approaches international dispute settlement on a case-by-case basis. It is increasingly prepared to accept adjudicative methods of dispute settlement (as opposed to diplomatic means) when it considers the benefits of doing so to outweigh the economic and political costs.
  • Where issues of sovereignty are concerned, such as in the South China Sea case, China is generally hostile to international adjudication. Its strong preference is for political or diplomatic approaches.
  • But in areas where multilateral action is required in order to protect its interests – including trade and investment – China is more likely to participate in international adjudication. China is an active player in the World Trade Organization’s dispute settlement mechanism. In the field of international investment law, China is increasingly prepared to subject disputes to international arbitration.
  • In newer areas of international law, such as the regime governing deep-sea mining, we are likely to see China engaging proactively with international dispute settlement mechanisms.
  • At a time when multilateralism is being challenged and nationalism is on the rise, the need for states to support international dispute resolution, and comply with the decisions of relevant bodies, is vital. In areas in which China is engaging, other states should encourage the continuation of this behaviour by engaging and complying themselves with relevant rules.