China has refused to participate in an arbitration launched by the Philippines regarding their disputes in the South China Sea. Japan has refused to acknowledge that it has a dispute with China regarding Senkaku/Diaoyu. South Korea has rejected Japan’s offer to refer their dispute over Dokdo/ Takeshima to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on the grounds that there is no dispute.
These developments may give the impression that Asians are against submitting their disputes to the international legal process. Such an impression would be incorrect. The countries in South-east Asia have a positive track record of referring their disputes to the international legal process. Let me briefly discuss some of the most important cases. The Preah Vihear case The first case submitted by two South-east Asian countries to the ICJ was the dispute over the temple, Preah Vihear, between Cambodia and Thailand.
Cambodia brought the case to the court in 1959 and, in 1962, ICJ awarded sovereignty over the temple to Cambodia. However, the court was not asked and therefore did not demarcate the boundary between the two countries, around the temple or rule on the ownership of the land around the temple. This omission would lead to misunderstanding and border skirmishes between the two countries. In 2011, Cambodia surprised everyone by applying to the ICJ and requesting the court to interpret its 1962 judgment. In particular, Cambodia requested the court to declare that it had sovereignty over the vicinity of the temple.
The court agreed to accept the case and found that Cambodia had sovereignty over the whole promontory on which the temple is located. The judgment has been accepted by the two countries and peace has returned to the Cambodian/Thai border. The Sipadan and Ligitan case Indonesia and Malaysia had a sovereignty dispute over two islands, Sipadan and Ligitan. The two governments agreed to refer the dispute to the ICJ in 1998. In its 2002 judgment, the court awarded sovereignty over the two islands to Malaysia.