My Take

So far it’s been the US, not China, that has flouted international law

An international tribunal is expected to rule today on a suit brought by the Philippines – and Washington is already cranking up its PR machine to denounce Beijing

PUBLISHED : Monday, 11 July, 2016, 10:57pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 12 July, 2016, 1:22am

The American public relations war against China over conflicting claims in the South China Sea has been a no-brainer. If Beijing defies the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the event the tribunal rules against it this week, the US will portray China as a rogue state that refuses to follow international laws and norms.

Well, fair enough, except China is just following the same playbook written by none other than the US itself.

Reasonable people may feel sympathetic towards small countries like the Philippines being bullied by Beijing but they may also recognise that the US has little moral standing in the matter, which amounts to the long-time bully against a would-be bully in the region.

Questions of neutrality: China takes aim at judges in South China Sea case

No one knows this better than Paul Reichler, the lead lawyer arguing the case for the Philippines in the tribunal. He was also one of the lawyers who represented Nicaragua against the US in 1986. The International Court of Justice then ruled against the US for violating international law by supporting the militant Contras against the leftist government of Nicaragua and mining its harbours.

“[The case] was a blemish on the US moral posture and its ability to project itself as a promoter of a rules-based international order,” Reichler said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal last week.

A legion of Chinese lawyers have been studying the Nicaragua case, and Beijing is following the US – by claiming such a legal body has no jurisdiction to rule. If it loses on at least some issues being ruled by the tribunal, it will no doubt follow the US with its next step: denounce and then ignore the ruling.

Multimedia special: 70 years of construction, conflict and combat on the South China Sea

It is comical to watch the White House, the State Department and the Defence Department all wax morally indignant at China.

The US talks much about the law of the sea and freedom of navigation. But for decades, it has failed to ratify the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos) on which the Nicaragua ruling was based.

One could argue the Nicaragua case is history, but Unclos is routinely cited by interested parties in the current East and South China seas disputes.

If the US were backed by international treaties rather than its maritime might, it might have a stronger case. Now it’s just a power play by a hypocrite.