VietNamNet Bridge – China’s statement to withdraw from the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea 1982 (UNCLOS) in response to the decision of the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) is not entirely a new idea, but if this scenario actually happens, it will have two major impacts on regional and international order.
Satellite images of a number of works illegally built by China on Subi Reef in the East Sea. Reuters
Earlier, on June 20, the Japan Times cited a Chinese diplomat as saying that Beijing may withdraw from UNCLOS 1982 as an act of retaliation if the PCA’s decision is contrary to the “position” of Beijing.
Since the PCA accepted 7/15 submissions of the Philippines, many experts believe that the judgment of the PCA will be unfavorable to China.
Beijing has always insisted that it will not accept nor respect the decision of the PCA even if China has been a member of the UNCLOS since 1996.
Firstly, this is the first time since UNCLOS was established that a powerhouse would withdraw from UNCLOS because of a disagreement with the PCA’s verdict.
This would erode the credibility of the PCAand UNCLOS, and create a bad precedent if a power denies the value of the Court.
Secondly, China’s withdrawal from UNCLOS would make countries that sue China in other cases think of other difficult options and make the path to settle disputes peacefully more thorny.
Institution and laws are the solution for the weak, and peaceful methods are the most effective for dispute resolution, so if the institutional power cannot be applied, muscular strength will prevail.
However, for the long-term benefits such a scenario is a completely uncomfortable for China since it will pose two huge challenges for this country.
According to Dr. Mingjiang Li, the coordinator of the China Program at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (Singapore), China will face big challenges in its relations with ASEAN, as well as the implementation of the silk road through this region.
China will also face challenges at regional and international forums when the East Sea (internationally known as the South China Sea) disputes are discussed.
For a major power that wants to become hegemonic, the most important thing is to establish the rules and adhere to them to set an example. Denying the value of the rules set by the most prestigious legal institution in maritime matters would seriously harm the reputation and image of China, as well as its relations with countries in the region.
In the long term this act will make other countries lose their trust and be ready to deny the rules set by China later in its efforts to establish hegemony.
Major General Nguyen Le Van Cuong, former head of the Strategy Institute of the Ministry of Public Security, said China will lose a lot if it denies the judgment of the PCA. The world will continue to see China as a large country bullying the weaker and a power that is irresponsible in making commitments to resolve disputes by peaceful paths.
More importantly, China will be unable to continue to invoke the provisions of UNCLOS for its sovereignty claims and lose its legitimacy in action.
So far, though it has always exercised unilateral escalation, China has always tried to convince the international community that it is a big country which is responsible and respects the rule of law, instead of a representative of legal chaos with outrageous claims and aggressive actions at sea.
Therefore, China still wants to use the UNCLOS as a front to avoid criticism and “distort” the law in favor of themselves. If it loses this curtain, China will become one that favors “musclular actions” and disobeys the law. On the other hand, China’s claims in the East Sea in terms of sovereignty, jurisdiction, rights of exploitation, fishing and freedom of navigation will be based on a different legal framework, which may not be recognized.
Besides, China will also be unable to use UNCLOS as a tool to deter US intervention in the process of settlement of disputes in the sea (the US has not joined UNCLOS) or to continue criticizing USpatrols to ensure freedom of navigation in the East Sea as “violations of international law” and infringement of so-called “China’s sovereignty”.
Therefore, though there are many rumors and worries, withdrawal from UNCLOS may be China’s bluff.
With a superpower status, international reputation is very important so withdrawing from UNCLOS will “disgrace” China and it will make itself a brutal man who ignores the law. The ambition to become a global maritime superpower and build a new economic political order will also break.