China Threatens To Leave UN Sea Convention If Court Invalidates Maritime Claims

As an arbitration court in The Hague gets ready to make a decision regarding an ongoing territorial dispute between China and the Philippines, China has reportedly told some other Asian countries that it may leave the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea if it disagrees with the ruling.

The Philippines has been the most vocal critic of China's activities in the South China Sea, and filed a case with the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague in 2013 in an attempt to invalidate China's "nine-dash line", China's version of what territory it owns.

Here is a map showing different maritime claims each country has, many overlap each other.

Zoomed version

China believes the worst outcome would be for the tribunal to rule that Beijing's claim over the sea has no international legal grounds, and invalidates its line.

From Kyodo News

China thinks the worst outcome would be for the tribunal, constituted by the 1982 convention, or UNCLOS, to rule that Beijing's claim of "historic rights" over the sea has no international legal grounds and invalidate its expansive line, according to the sources.


China has told some diplomats of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations that it does not rule out withdrawing from the convention, often referred to as the constitution of the oceans, if that happens, the sources said.


Many experts believe that the ruling will not be favorable for China, which also has territorial disputes in the South China Sea with three other members of the 10-member association, namely Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei.

The significance of the claim is understood when realizing what is at stake. The territory encompasses a key international shipping route for trade, is rich in fisheries (key for China, as protein is expensive for its citizens right now), and is believed to have large oil and gas deposits. Due to these reasons, it is not a surprise that China claims it won't honor any unfavorable decision, nor does it like the fact that outside parties (read: United States) intervene in the dispute.

China's massive reclamation in recent years of islands in the South China Sea -- a key international shipping route that is rich in fisheries resources and is also believed to hold large oil and gas deposits -- and its building of military facilities on them have generated widespread concerns, not only among the claimants, which also include Taiwan.


China, which ratified UNCLOS in 1996, has said it will neither accept nor honor the upcoming ruling by the tribunal. It has criticized the Philippines for filing the case "unilaterally" and breaking their past agreement of trying to settle territorial disputes through bilateral negotiations.


China has also asserted that the court has no jurisdiction over the case.


However, the Philippines' action has been backed by numerous countries including the United States and Japan, which regard it as a step toward resolving disagreements and easing tensions peacefully through international law.


While China has urged non-claimants not to meddle in territorial disputes in the South China Sea, those countries described by Beijing as "outsiders" have said they do not take sides in the feuds but have a say in opposing to any attempt to undermine rule-based order in the region.


They have put pressure on China to respect the forthcoming ruling if it wants to be a responsible major country in the international community.


China has accused the United States, not a signatory to UNCLOS, of having no right to talk about the arbitration case and argued that it is part of Washington's attempt with its allies in the region to contain Beijing's growing influence in the name of international law.


China's noncompliance with the decision is likely to damage its international image, but the tribunal has no enforcement mechanism.

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If the tribunal has no enforcement mechanism, this begs the question will the United States step in and try to enforce any ruling that is handed down from the court. If so, already elevated tensions between the US and China could get exponentially worse.