When the government of the Philippines announced last month
it was taking China to court over territorial claims in the South China Sea, it
was seen by some as a surprising
but savvy move -- a first step toward establishing some sort of law and
order in East Asia's waters, which, up until now have been a sort of aquatic
Wild West, with nations planting
flags on rocks, roping
off shoals, and building up tiny
reefs to stake their claims.
The hearing was to determine the validity of China's claims to a wide swath of ocean that encompasses waters near the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei, among other countries. Manila even generated some buzz by hiring D.C. lawyer Paul
Reichler to argue its case, a man who's made his name as a "giant-slayer"
in the world of international law for his often-successful track record of
suing the U.S. Russia, and Britain on behalf of countries like Nicaragua,
Georgia and Mauritius.
Then, on Tuesday, China made
clear it had no plans to participate in any international court
arbitration. Though the hearing will go on without China's participation, the
decision, some may think, doesn't bode well for hopes that China might abide by
a ruling that doesn't go its way.
Still, Reichler, who
was hired by the Philippines last year, thinks the rising power could come
"They're very smart people," he said in an interview last
week. "And I think they might come to understand that in the long run their
best interests are served by being a responsible member of the international
Reichler's faith in the power of international law to
wrangle even the largest of powers comes from his success suing the United
States. He took America to The Hague on behalf of the Sandinista government of Nicaragua
in the 1980s, over U.S. support of the Contras, and won -- an effort that earned
ire of figures like John McCain. As a result of the victory - and the
international pressure that accompanied it -- he says, Congress cut off funding
for Contra support.
"It's a very high cost to prestige to be branded as an
international wrongdoer and then not comply," he said.
The decision not to take part in the arbitration is
"unfortunate," Reichler said in an email (China has long said it doesn't want
to its territorial conflicts "internationalized"). "They had an opportunity to demonstrate their
commitment to the international legal order, to show respect for its
procedures, and to agree to be bound by its rules. Had they seized this chance,
they would have proven that they are not only a great power, but a responsible
But the pressure on Beijing to comply with an unfavorable
ruling - even if it doesn't participate - will still be there, Reichler said.
"To me, China has always denounced imperialism, denounced
unilateralism, has denounced violations of the U.N. Charter," he said. "This is
an opportunity for China to really show its true colors."