Signs of rule of law in Asia's Wild West

Defense leaders in East Asia, including those from the US, meet as the region roils over China's aggressive acts over islands and watery resources. A few nations, however, take legal action to show how disputes can be resolved peacefully.

AP Photo
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, left, listens to Lt. Gen. Wang Guanzhong, right, China's deputy chief of General Staff, during the start of their meeting May 3 in Singapore. Hagel warned an international security conference Saturday that the U.S. "will not look the other way" when nations such as China try to restrict navigation or ignore international rules and standards.

One reason the world pays so much attention to a white-knuckle struggle over East Asia’s seas and islands is that the watery clashes resemble the bad old days of America’s Wild West.

Brute force competes with the law. Crude power tries to trump principles applicable to all. A grand battle is underway to create a permanent rulebook.

The players in the region know this. So when they actually sit down to listen to each other, as they did Friday and Saturday at an annual conference in Singapore known as the Shangri-La Dialogue, the underlying tension is whether rule of law will prevail in bringing about peaceful resolutions.

Much like Russia’s recent taking of Crimea, China has been subverting international law with aggressive intrusions into the air, waters, or islands long controlled by Japan, Vietnam, and the Philippines. Beijing claims that the ancient travels of Chinese sailors give it sovereignty over areas far beyond the legal 200 nautical miles off its coastline. Such a stance, so outside current legal norms, has pushed even Indonesia to forgo its mediating role in these conflicts. In March, it made a complaint against Beijing’s claim.

During the two-day regional defense conference, which included Chinese and American top military brass, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe set a high tone in these remarks:

“What the world eagerly awaits is for our seas and our skies to be places governed by rules, laws, and established dispute resolution procedures,” said Mr. Abe. “The least desirable state of affairs is having to fear that coercion and threats will take the place of rules and laws.”

Now compare that statement to how China reacted in April after the Philippines filed a legal suit over Beijing’s claim to much of the South China Sea.  The Philippines will “face consequences,” stated the Chinese foreign ministry, simply for taking its case to the United Nation’s International Tribunal of the Law of the Sea. China has already diminished the flow of Chinese tourists to its neighbor, not to mention the taking of shoals in Philippine waters.

The legal case by Manila is the first time that an East Asian maritime dispute has been taken to court. This is a small triumph that deserves the support of other Asian nations.

In early May, after China positioned an oil rig in Vietnam’s waters, Vietnam also signaled that it would follow the Philippines in filing a legal case. And on May 22, Indonesia and the Philippines wrapped up 20 years of negotiations and signed a maritime border agreement that sets boundaries for the overlapping economic zones in their shared seas.

That pact is an encouraging model for others – not only China but also South Korea and Japan, which have yet to resolve a contentious island dispute.

The principles for settling maritime claims were laid down in a 1982 treaty known as the UN Convention on the Law of the Seas. In 2002, most nations in Asia – notably China – also signed onto a nonmandatory code of conduct to use international law and peaceful means to deal with their maritime disagreements.

International law, said the Japanese prime minister at the conference, “was not created by any particular country or countries, nor was it the product of some sort of group. Instead, it is the product of our wisdom, cultivated over a great many years for the well-being and the prosperity of all humankind.”

Since China signed onto that 2002 code, however, it has made aggressive moves to assert control over great swaths of nearby seas. In 2009, it published a loose, hand-drawn map, the so called “nine-dash line,” that claims waters far beyond its borders. Last month, one of its ships rammed a Vietnamese fishing vessel in a disagreement over the Paracel Islands.

Much of China’s attitude may be driven by an avoidance of rule of law within the country. The Communist Party puts itself above the law and prefers personal rule by top-ranking officials. Such arbitrariness is not serving China’s interests. In a survey of Europe-based companies in China last month, most cited “discretionary enforcement of regulations” as a major hindrance to doing business in the country.

According to media reports, Chinese leaders plan to take up the issue of ensuring rule of law during their next party meeting. But as Wang Guixiu, a retired Central Party School researcher told the South China Morning Post, the party and the Chinese people have different views of the rule of law. “The public says it is about putting officials in check, while officials say it is about how to govern the public,” he said.

Laws are useful to uphold fundamental and enduring principles, such as reverence for life, that are ascendant over destructive behavior, such as the use of violence. Much of the world has given up gun-slinging for peace-making in recent decades. And as more nations in East Asia stand up for international law, the region will find it can also gain such peace.

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