Beijing's rejection of international arbitration to resolve disputes over its claim to most of the South China Sea makes it look like a "bully" in the world community, a leading US expert on Chinese law said this week.
In January, the Philippines challenged the validity of China's nine-dash line - which defines its claim to a sea area that stretches hundreds of kilometres south and east from its most southerly province, Hainan - via an arbitration tribunal under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
Professor Jerome Cohen, of the New York University school of law, said he was "disappointed" that Beijing had rejected arbitration. "The leadership obviously took the view that damage is likely to be less, especially if it can coerce the Philippines into further compromise while arbitration is going on," he said at a lecture at the University of Hong Kong on Thursday.
But China "would look more reasonable" if it had presented its arguments to the panel because it would have been seen to be honouring its obligation to comply with treaty provisions, he said.
Cohen said China's argument that its historical sovereignty of the area existed long before UNCLOS came into existence was a possibly legitimate point, but "instead of following procedures, the Chinese say it's so clearly right that our position cannot be challenged, so we don't have to bother with what we've committed ourselves to". China signed and ratified the convention soon after it came into force in 1994.
"How is it for any nation to say we're so correct that we don't have to go to the impartial tribunal we previously agreed on to hear our views validated?"
"This makes China look bad to the world community … Now it looks like a bully that rejects its legal obligation to settle a dispute under UNCLOS," he said.
Cohen said he would like to see other countries with claims to territory in the East and South China seas resolve their disputes through arbitration.
Vietnam and China claim the Paracel Islands and the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines, meanwhile, claim parts of the Spratlys.
Cohen said all "great powers" including the US and China "need to be reminded from time to time they are subject to international limits they sometimes don't like".
He said China's rejection of international arbitration had eroded its soft power.
"When you're seen to be a violator of international law, you don't win many votes from the world community," he said.