Asia Pacific

China to create 'international maritime judicial center' amid rising sea tensions

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

China will set up an “international maritime judicial center” in a bid to help protect its sea rights, the country’s chief justice said Sunday, a move that analysts say Beijing could use to bolster its claims in the disputed South and East China seas.

Courts across the country are working to implement a national strategy of turning the country into a “maritime power,” Chief Justice Zhou Qiang said in a report during an annual meeting of the nation’s rubber-stamp legislature, the official Xinhua News Agency reported.

“(We) must resolutely safeguard China’s national sovereignty, maritime rights and other core interests. (We) must improve the work of maritime courts and build an international maritime judicial center,” Xinhua quoted Zhou as saying, without giving further details.

The move comes ahead of a highly anticipated ruling later this year by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague on the Philippines’ dispute with China over the South China Sea. China has not participated in the case and said it will ignore the ruling.

Beijing lays claim to most of the resource-rich South China Sea, which is also home to key sea lanes, through which $5 trillion in global trade passes every year. Aside from the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, Vietnam and Brunei also have overlapping claims in the waters.

China’s increasingly bellicose moves in the South China Sea have stoked concern among its Southeast Asia neighbors as well as in Japan and the United States, which has conducted what it calls “freedom of navigation” operations in waters near disputed islands.

Beijing also claims the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, which are administered by Japan and known in China as the Diaoyus.

Zhou also used the report as a chance to bolster China’s claims to those islands.

Noting one case involving the collision of a Chinese and foreign vessel in the Senkakus heard by a Chinese maritime court, Zhou said the case — which ended via mediation — “clearly demonstrated China’s jurisdiction over the region.”

He said the case involved a Chinese trawler that was damaged in a collision with a Panama-flagged cargo ship off the Senkakus in September 2014.

According to Richard Javad Heydarian, an assistant professor at De La Salle University in Manila, the international maritime legal push would likely have little impact outside of China.

“This is nothing short of another counterpropaganda ploy to provide a quasi-legal cover for China’s aggressive maritime posturing and highly controversial boycott of the ongoing arbitration case at The Hague,” Heydarian said.

“While these kinds of maneuvers may have some domestic nationalistic resonance, they have no bearing on the international community’s legal opinion on the validity of China’s behavior in adjacent waters,” he added.

Sebastian Maslow, an assistant professor at Tohoku University’s graduate school of law in Sendai, echoed this sentiment.

“The playbook the Chinese leadership appears to follow is if you can’t challenge your opponent’s claim based on established norms of international law, then challenge the norms,” Maslow said, adding that he believes the move would bolster China’s claims —  if only for domestic audiences.

In his report, Zhou also touted China’s growing global role in maritime law, claiming that some 16,000 maritime cases were concluded in Chinese courts last year — the most in the world, he said — while adding that China is also hosts the majority of the globe’s maritime courts.

But because Beijing says it is setting up the international body to protect its own national sovereignty and maritime rights, the move is unlikely to gain traction with other nations.

“That kind of partisan rationale is likely to put off other countries from regarding it as a neutral venue, preferable to the existing options of the ICJ or ITLOS tribunal,” Euan Graham, director of the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute in Sydney, said, referring to the International Court of Justice and the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea.

“China appears to want to promote itself as an alternative to these institutions,” he added. “But that is problematic for the obvious reasons that many of the region’s maritime disputes involve China as a claimant.”