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Foreign Policy

Following International Norms and Laws

Jun 17 , 2014

For a long time, China has supported international norms and laws as a foundation of conducting contemporary international relations. As early as in November 1950, the PRC sent General Wu Xiuquan to the UN headquarters in New York, revealing and condemning the US aggression on Taiwan and Korea, by citing the United Nations Charter.

Shen Dingli

In 1954, China, in partnership with India, as well as with Myanmar, first proposed the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence while concluding the Panchsheel Treaty with India on April 29 in Beijing. Even since then, the Five Principles have been widely accepted as a norm of contemporary international relations. China has not only promoted the notion of conducting inter-state relations through diplomacy, with a focus on equality and fairness, but has also created the set of Five Principles as its major contribution to the norms of handling international relations.

Since the founding of the PRC six and a half decades ago, China has championed the UN Charter, as this Charter, in advocating for peace, non-aggression and development, has been the source of all international public laws in the post-colonial age. As a former victim of imperialism and colonialism, China and all other formerly suppressed countries would enjoy a fair world as protected by the UN institution. While sticking to the model of UN-based collective security and widest possible multilateralism, those former empires and colonizers shall also be better off through treating small and weak countries on an equal footing.

Though China advocates advancing national interests and international relations with international norms and laws as a priority, a number of its own legitimate sovereign interests have not yet been properly respected. In fact, among all major countries, China is still the only one whose fundamental national interests in sovereignty and territorial integrity have not been fully attained. For instance, the Chinese mainland has not yet reunified with Taiwan, not has China fully retained the Diaoyu Islands, despite the fact that it is a WWII victor over imperialist Japan, which invaded China and stole these islands around 1894-1895. Additionally, Vietnam, the Philippines, and other neighbors have occupied some of the Chinese islands and islets in the South China Sea since the 1970s, which they used to admit, explicitly or implicitly on numerous occasions as having belonged to China. Frankly speaking, external factors, especially the American intervention, have complicated these cases even more.

This indicates that modern international norms and laws, such as the principle of non-aggression, have not been fully respected and implemented in reality. For Cold War interests, the US intervened in the Taiwan issue, deploying armed forces and nuclear weapons on Taiwan before 1979, thus seriously violating the UN Charter. Though Washington has normalized relations with Beijing since 1979, it has continued to sell weapons to Taiwan, as well as making and placing its domestic law, the Taiwan Relations Act, above international law. By “reverting” the Diaoyu Islands to Japan in 1972, the US has disregarded the Cairo Declaration and Potsdam Proclamation. In addition, President Obama claimed in his April 2014 Japan tour that the US-Japan Security Treaty of 1960 is applicable to this issue. With the Americans breaching international norms and laws, Japan has become more emboldened in challenging China’s sovereign interest. Similarly, Vietnam and the Philippines have ventured to provoke Chinese sovereign interests in the South China Sea, by taking advantage of Obama’s “rebalancing” strategy.

Interestingly, while the US has been disregarding international norms and laws in dealing with China’s sovereignty, lately Washington has positioned itself as a defender of international law. By asking China to withdraw its East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), and to withdraw from engaging in economic activity within the overlapping water between China’s Nine-Dash-Line and its maritime neighbors’ exclusive economic zones (EEZs), the US seeks to accord respect to the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The US has argued for the right of freedom of navigation and flight in international water and space, as if China has violated such international norms. At the Shangri-La Dialogue this May-June in Singapore, the US Secretary of Defense has illustrated China as “destabilizing” the East and South China Seas by not respecting proper international laws.

Indeed, the idea of ADIZ may not have proper international law as its basis, but it is the US’s launch of its own ADIZ as early as in 1950 that has created the “usage” of such practices.  The US has to withdraw its ADIZs before telling China what to do. It is noted that Beijing’s East China Sea ADIZ has covered the space above Diaoyu Islands, so logically, China launched its ADIZ partly as a response to Japan’s “nationalization” of these islands in 2012 and subsequent American threat to China by “defending” Japan’s illegal control of them through US-Japan bilateral arrangement rather than international law.

True, China shall respect other’s EEZ rights if they are entitled. But in joining the UNCLOS in 1982 China made proper reservation due to its historical rights in the region. Any country has a right not to accept a certain part of an international treaty, or not to accede to it at all, and China has made this clear from beginning. Therefore, China has not violated the UNCLOS for those parts that China has accepted. Why is the US, which has not ratified the same convention, entitled to tell China to observe the UNCLOS with which China has already expressed its reservation?

The UNCLOS is meant to delineate maritime economic interests among nations, but not to judge sovereign disputes at sea. It is the UN system, rather than the UNCLOS, which shall tackle those fundamental sovereign issues, such as US sales of weapons to Taiwan, American “preemption” of Iraq, as well as Hanoi and Manila’s aggression on China’s islands in the South China Sea. Notably, the US is completely silent on these matters. Washington has pointed to Moscow for the latter’s military action on Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014, but it has not touched on its own aggression on Taiwan and Iraq.

America’s hypocrisy on international norm and law, though hurting Chinese, Iraqis and many others, will certainly and eventually undercut its professed interest in sustaining its global leadership on a legitimate and fair basis. It is high time for Washington to ponder over this now.

Dr. Shen Dingli is a professor and Vice Dean at the Institute of International Affairs, Fudan University. He is also the founder and director of China’s first non-government-based Program on Arms Control and Regional Security at Fudan University.


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