South China Sea: China breaks International law?


These days it’s easy to see China as an emerging great power, starting to throw its weight around: militarizing islands, breaking international laws. To what extent are these perceptions true? Let’s take a look.

Last November, the Philippines sued China at an international maritime court over disputed territories. China said no. It won’t accept compulsory arbitration on maritime sovereignty. That decision generated lots of media reports that portrayed China as a big regional bully: militarizing islands, breaking laws. Well, here’s what these reports did not mention.

International laws, conventions, treaties, protocols, you name it, are, in essence, grand bargains between self-interested nation-states. Some of these bargains are so-called ‘no-reservation’ treaties, meaning countries signing them have to commit to basically every word of them. For that reason, some countries refuse to sign these treaties.

There are over 30 major international laws the U.S. did not sign or ratify.Some agreements, like the UN’s Law of the Sea, allow what are called “reservations.” When you don’t agree with a particular term of it, you may declare that you won’t accept it. Article 298 of the law explicitly says: “…a State may” declare in writing that it “doesn’t accept any one or more” of the ways the law proposes to settle disputes.

This might sound controversial but in reality nearly 40 countries did that. Australia, Argentina, Canada, Denmark, the list goes on.

To speak nothing of the U.S. that did not even ratify it in the first place. So in saying, “no,” to compulsory arbitration over sovereignty, China has plenty of company in the western world.

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