China And The US Undercut International Law For Their Narrow Interests

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International law requires the consent of all parties, but China and the US reject when decisions cross short-term strategic interests.

Flutter over the surprise visit to China by Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte may soon fade. But his abrupt and public dismissal of the United States in favor of China has weakened the argument that international rule of law could underpin a changing world order.

The issue in question was the long-running dispute between China and the Philippines over sovereignty of Scarborough Shoal, situated 800 kilometers southeast of China and 160 kilometers west of the Philippines mainland, well inside the United Nations–defined Philippines Exclusive Economic Zone.

Despite a court ruling and Duterte’s cap in hand during his October mission to Beijing, Philippine fishing vessels still only enter the waters around Scarborough Shoal at China’s mercy.

The dispute erupted in April 2012, when China sent ships to expel Filipino fishing crews and took control of the area. The standoff became a symbol of Beijing’s policy to lay claim to 90 percent of the South China Sea where where it continues to build military outposts on remote reefs and artificially created islands in waters claimed by other nations. Lacking military, diplomatic or economic muscle, the Philippines turned to the rule of law and the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague. A panel of maritime judges ruled China’s claim to Scarborough Shoal invalid in July this year. China refused to recognize the tribunal from the start and declared the decision “null and void,” highlighting the complex balance in the current world order between national power and the rule of law.

Beijing’s response mirrored a 1986 US response to Nicaragua’s challenge in the International Court of Justice. The court ruled against the United States for mining Nicaragua’s harbors and supporting right-wing Contra rebels. The United States claimed the court had no jurisdiction.

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