Do as I Say, Not as I Do: China and Russia’s Paradoxical Legal Rhetoric on Sovereignty

By Stacy Closson*

Russian premier Vladimir Putin (right) and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping (center), have both resorted to paradoxical applications of international law.

China and Russia judge territorial integrity of a sovereign state to rule supreme: as Permanent-5 members of the United Nations they block uses of force under Chapter VII of the Charter in most cases.  Yet in their regions, sovereign lines are blurred, as evidenced by Russia’s takeover of Ukraine’s Crimea and China’s building of artificial islets over uninhabited reefs in disputed jurisdictions.  This conflicting—and paradoxical—use of international law by China and Russia has remained largely unchallenged, as regional states have been too weak militarily and economically to challenge them.  However, recent decisions by regional states to turn to international law could have serious consequences for these two powers. 

On China, an arbitral tribunal in The Hague held that it has jurisdiction over key issues in the Philippines’ dispute against China over its South China Sea claims.  It will be difficult for China to ignore this case, as both it and the Philippines are parties to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and the former is asserting its right to exploit the 200-nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone.

This decision could affect disputes with other states with overlapping claims in the sea over issues of maritime routes, oil and gas deposits, and fisheries. Vietnam is considering filing a similar suit.  Taiwan, on the other hand, issued a statement that it did not recognize the court’s ruling, asserting its rightful claim to islands under dispute in the South China Sea.  However, the Taiwanese government did say that it remained opened to working with other parties to ensure peace and stability.  

On Russia, Ukraine has just announced that its national oil and gas company, Naftohaz Ukrainy, plans to sue Russia over the assets lost in Crimea’s Black Sea and the Sea of Azov.  The takeover of Crimea has put production sharing agreements that the Ukrainian government had previously signed with Italy’s Eni and ExxonMobil on hold.  Meanwhile, the Government of Ukraine is pursuing an action against Russia over Crimea at the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). 

Both China and Russia have issued statements that they do not view these international courts in these particular cases to have a say in their sovereign affairs. Russia’s constitutional court ruled that Russia is not obliged to obey ECHR verdicts.  China released a position paper arguing that the Philippines’ maritime delineation claims were merely territorial sovereignty claims and therefore the UNCLOS tribunal has no jurisdiction. 

It is unclear what would push China and Russia to obey ultimate findings of an international court.  Reputational losses seem not to have hindered either’s moves up to this point.  Friendly relations with neighbors also do not seem to be a priority.  Pressure from the United States remains on both countries to reverse recent territorial grabs to no avail, despite the most severe sanctions placed on Russia since the Cold War.

*Dr. Stacy Closson, Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute; Assistant Professor at the University of Kentucky’s Patterson School of Diplomacy & International Commerce