Skip to main content

An International Commission of Inquiry for the South China Sea?: Defining the Law of Sovereignty to Determine the Chance for Peace

Posted by on Monday, August 8, 2016 in Articles, Blog, Vol. 49 No. 3, Volume 49.

The multilateral territorial dispute over the South China Sea has intensified in recent years. In response, some observers endorse the apparent turn to “lawfare” on display in the ongoing Philippines v. China arbitration, conducted under Annex VII of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Yet the limited subject matter of this arbitration means that it can contribute only modestly to any ultimate resolution between claimants. Indeed, the Chinese side has argued against tribunal jurisdiction precisely on the basis of the primacy of questions over territorial sovereignty—which are barred from UNCLOS proceedings—to the determination of all other legal issues being contested between the parties.

This Article assesses the merits of these and other major objections to the UNCLOS arbitration and proposes a supplemental legal mechanism: an international Commission of Inquiry (COI) by involved states, addressing French, Japanese, and other extra-regional states’ now inactive claims regarding the sovereign status of the region’s various island territories through the end of World War II hostilities in 1945. Such a COI would acknowledge, as the UNCLOS arbitration does not, the centrality of the legal issue of territorial sovereignty to the dispute. Yet by limiting its findings to the islands’ contested status during the period of European and Japanese colonialism in Asia, rather than determining current ownership, a COI could nonetheless avoid exacerbating tensions or alienating claimants.

Most importantly, such an approach could serve to establish a narrowed, but still ample, range of possible legal claims and outcomes for further adjudication. Claims based on “discovery” and “conquest” could at least potentially be ruled out, leaving only “cession”-based arguments (the implications of which are considerably less divisive, as they are premised on mutual recognition between equal states). A COI would also be based upon and contribute to a regional “epistemic community” of juridical expertise, furthering transnational civil society ties between claimant states. Finally, the positivistic discourse based on the principle of legal equality pursued by a COI as here proposed could, potentially, more generally dissuade unilateral behavior by individual states, while promoting mutual recognition and cooperative arrangements among regional actors.

 

 

Leave a Response


ExpressO Top 10 Law Review


ANNOUNCEMENTS

The Journal is pleased to announce its 2018-2019 Board of Editors. View the complete masthead here.

Vanderbilt University Law School Professor Michael A. Newton’s 2016 VJTL Article entitled How the International Criminal Court Threatens Treaty Norms  was cited by the International Criminal Court prosecutor’s November 2017 filing seeking investigation into war crimes in Afghanistan.

May 2018 Issue on the Second Israel Defense Forces International Conference on the Law of Armed Conflict. Read more about the Journal’s May 2018 issue here.

Thank you to everyone who attended the Journal’s 50th Anniversary celebration on October 5, 2017! View photos from the event here and read about the Journal’s history here.

Connect with the Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law on LinkedIn.

The Journal is pleased to listed as the #5 International Law Journal by the 2017 Washington and Lee Law Journal Rankings.

The Journal is very excited about the success of our February 2017 Symposium, “Sovereign Conduct on the Margins of the Law.” Read more about our February 2017 Symposium here

Please join us in congratulating the Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law 2017-2018 Write-On Competition Winners.

Video is available from the Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law’s 2015-2016 SymposiumThis is Not a Drill: Confronting Legal Issues in the Wake of International Disasters. Watch here.