Experts debunk China’s claim on defying int’l rulings

Paterno R. Esmaquel II
Facing a historic case filed by the Philippines, China claims it is 'commonplace' to snub international rulings

DAVID VS GOLIATH. A Chinese coast guard ship (top) and a Philippine supply boat engage in a standoff as the Philippine boat attempts to reach Ayungin Shoal, a reef claimed by both countries, on March 29, 2014. In 2013, Philippines filed a historic case against China over the South China Sea. File photo by Jay Directo/AFP

MANILA, Philippines – China’s refusal to answer the Philippines’ pleading by December 15, the deadline set by the designated tribunal, revived a common question: What if China snubs a ruling that favors the Philippines?

China, in the first place, told the arbitral tribunal at the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) that it “does not accept the arbitration initiated by the Philippines,” according to the PCA’s news release on Tuesday, June 3.

The Asian giant stated this in a note verbale sent to the PCA on May 21, after the tribunal said China should respond to the Philippines’ written pleading or memorial by December 15.

China said it is common, after all, to snub international rulings.

In a position paper sent to the media on April 3, Chinese Embassy spokesman Zhang Hua explained: “In international practice, when their major national interests or positions are involved, many countries have taken the position of not accepting the jurisdiction nor enforcing the rulings of related international litigation or arbitration. Among them are both big countries like the United States and small and medium-sized countries. This is a commonplace practice.”

“To accuse China of disobeying international law on the ground that it has not accepted the arbitration is an act of applying ‘double standards.’ This is not fair to the Chinese side. And it does not conform to the true spirit of international rule of law. In fact, and much to the contrary, China’s refusal to accept the arbitration submitted by the Philippine side is an act truly in keeping with the law,” Zhang added. 

‘Compliance at 95%’

Experts, however, debunked these claims by China.

The Philippines’ lawyer in its case against China, Paul Reichler, said losing parties in international cases comply “at least 95%” of the time.

Dr Lowell Bautista, a lecturer at the University of Wollongong in Australia, also contradicted China’s claims on international rulings.

In an e-mail to Rappler, Bautista said, “China’s assertion that it is ‘commonplace practice for countries to ignore the rulings of international litigation and arbitration’ is definitely without any factual, historical, legal or philosophical basis.”

“On the contrary, compliance with international law, including the rulings of international institutions, adjudicative or otherwise, is the norm in international relations. The whole structure of the international legal system is founded on the voluntary compliance of sovereign states of international legal norms despite the absence of a global coercive power or institution that ensures compliance,” said Bautista, who specializes in territorial and maritime issues in the South China Sea.

True, he added, international courts can’t enforce their decisions.

The way other experts put it, international courts do not have police powers.

Reputation at stake

“However, states, by and large and in general, do comply,” Bautista said. “Compliance is ensured because states are rational and self-interested in nature. Therefore, states will comply with international law to maintain their standing and reputation as good and law-abiding members of the international community or to avoid direct or indirect sanctions following an infraction or non-compliance.”

“To suggest otherwise, as China does in its statement, is not only dangerous and subversive, it is also a threat to the peace, security and stability of international relations,” he explained.

International law expert Dr Suzette Suarez, who used to work at the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, pointed out that “there has been substantial compliance with decisions of international courts.”

Suarez cited a journal article in 2004, titled “Compliance with Final Judgments of the International Court of Justice Since 1987.”

The article, authored Colter Paulson, said commentators on the ICJ “note that cases of noncompliance with final judgments are very rare.”

“Outright defiance has not been asserted in any case; rather, in cases where total compliance was not achieved, the noncompliance was slight,” Paulson said in his introduction.

“The following 4 factors… contribute to such compliance: external political influence, the internal need for a definitive solution, the substance of the judgment issued, and internal political influence,” the author said.

In a forum, Reichler warned there “is a heavy price to pay for a state that defies an international court order, or a judgment of an arbitral tribunal that is seen, that is recognized, in the international community as legitimate, as fair, as correct, as appropriate.” –

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Paterno R. Esmaquel II

Paterno R. Esmaquel II, news editor of Rappler, specializes in covering religion and foreign affairs. He finished MA Journalism in Ateneo and MSc Asian Studies (Religions in Plural Societies) at RSIS, Singapore. For story ideas or feedback, email