China and UNCLOS: An Inconvenient History


As South China Sea tensions rise, Beijing rethinks its relationship with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

The rising tensions in South China Sea, especially the arbitration lawsuit brought by the Philippines, have stimulated debate and research about China’s South China Sea policy, as well as about the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). For Beijing, the South China Sea dispute is essentially a dilemma with UNCLOS, which the PRC took part in negotiating from 1973 to 1982, and ratified in 1996. Officially the government stands by its determination to abide by the convention it signed and ratified. But there has been more and more discussion in recent years about the question of whether China should withdraw from UNCLOS.

It took nine years from 1973 for the international community to finalize the United Nations conference that finally agreed on UNCLOS in 1982. For the PRC, this was its first multilateral negotiation after having joined the UN in 1971. Some recent Chinese accounts shed new light on the Chinese delegation’s state of mind at the time. One important source is the memoirs of the head of the Chinese delegation, Ling Qing, who later became deputy secretary general of the UN. An interview with the two deputy heads of the Chinese delegation by a major news magazine in 2012 also provides important additional information.

All of these sources paint the same picture: In 1973 when negotiations began, China was still in the throes of the Cultural Revolution, so the Chinese delegation was given three guidelines by the leadership: be anti-hegemony (meaning anti-U.S. and anti-USSR); support the Third World; protect the national interest. They thus put ideology before interest. This was common at the time. Moreover, China was grateful for the support it got from the Third World countries, which had played an important role in deciding to let the PRC take over China’s membership in the UN from the Kuomintang government on Taiwan in 1971. Beijing believed it should support the Third World in return.