Why does China reject the South China Sea arbitration award?

China’s stance is not merely an instinctive reaction to a total denial of China’s territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests in the South China Sea. It has a legal basis.

July 16, 2016 21:52
3 minute read.
Chinese dredging vessels are purportedly seen in the waters around Fiery Cross Reef in the disputed

Chinese dredging vessels are purportedly seen in the waters around Fiery Cross Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea in this still image from video taken by a P-8A Poseidon surveillance aircraft provided by the United States Navy May 21, 2015. . (photo credit: US NAVY/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)


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On July 12, an Arbitral Tribunal, put together on a temporary basis, issued a so-called award on the South China Sea arbitration. The Chinese government immediately made its stance clear, and has reiterated its stance consistently: China does not accept or participate in the arbitration and does not recognize the award. If you have read my article “Let the facts arbitrate” on May 24, you will see how China’s stance is justified regarding such a political farce under a legal cloak. For a better understanding, two points need to be added here.

First, China’s stance is not merely an instinctive reaction to a total denial of China’s territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests in the South China Sea. It has a legal basis.

Although the relevant disputes were deliberately packaged as mere issues concerning the interpretation or application of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the subject matter of the arbitration is in essence an issue of territorial sovereignty, which goes beyond the scope of UNCLOS. The unilateral initiation of arbitration infringes upon China’s right as a state party to UNCLOS to independently choose methods of dispute settlement. As early as 2006, China had already excluded, through a declaration pursuant to Article 298 of UNCLOS, disputes concerning maritime delimitation, inter alia, from the application of arbitration and other compulsory procedures.

Second, China’s stance is also logical and reasonable.

Over the past several years China and the Philippines reached consensus on how to address the dispute. The two sides have issued joint statements and news releases on multiple occasions and both signed the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC), in which both sides pledged to settle disputes through friendly negotiations and consultations. The Philippines may forget that pacta sunt servanda (“agreements must be kept”) is one of the core principles in international relations, but China never will. As a responsible country, China values its credibility and firmly supports the existing international system.

The fact is that South China Sea issue is not insoluble.

States have many ways at their disposal to resolve disputes peacefully. Third-party dispute settlement is obviously not the best one. As a matter of fact, through direct consultations and negotiations, China has solved border issues with 12 land neighbors, accounting for 90 percent of China’s total land borders. These cases give China an enormous impetus to consistently strive for the solution of disputes by way of negotiation, not unilateral steps.

Francis Bacon said: “One foul sentence doth more hurt than many foul examples. For these do but corrupt the stream: the other corrupteth the fountain.”

Although the arbitration amounts to nothing more than a piece of paper, the bad-faith dramatization and political manipulation that ensued have undermined the authority and sanctity of UNCLOS. The negative impact on international rule of law should not to be underestimated.

The existence of differences is nothing to be afraid of, neither is the complexity of the issues. As long as the relevant countries have the necessary goodwill and engage in friendly consultations and negotiations on an equal footing, they can enhance mutual trust, expand common understanding and gradually and properly settle their territorial and maritime delimitation disputes. The same is true with the South China Sea issue.

China has noted the latest statements by the new government of the Philippines, including its readiness to reopen consultation and dialogue. China hopes that the goodwill of the new Philippine government for improving relations with China will be accompanied with real actions.

A famous Chinese poem said, “We should not be afraid of the clouds blocking our view, because we already are at the highest elevation.” It means that only by adopting a strategic vision and minimizing distractions can one understand where the trend is going. Over the years, the South China Sea has seen colonial invasion and illegal occupation. However, no matter how the tide comes and goes, China will continue to develop friendly relations with its neighbors, uphold peace and stability in this region and remain firm in its strategic determination to pursue peaceful development.

The author is ambassador of China to the State of Israel.

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