The threat of armed conflict arising from China’s disputed assertions of territorial claims could be defused if all parties concerned agree to use international law institutions, said a U.S. Navy attorney. Capt Stuart Bell, USN, deputy assistant judge advocate general (international and operations law), told a Thursday panel audience at West 2014 in San Diego that the rule of law can be applied in most cases involving disputes between China and its neighbors to achieve a peaceful resolution.
Capt. Bell stated that international law is an essential tool for resolving these complex issues, which tend to fall into three categories: disputes over territorial claims to islands and reefs; aggressive assertions to maritime jurisdiction; and aggressive pursuit of natural resources such as oil deposits and fish stocks. Extant architectures are already in place to ensure that rules work, he said.
“Meaningful adherence to international law and norms is our best chance to resolve these territorial conflicts,” he posited.
Some countries already are pursuing this option. The Philippines went to international arbitration over territorial claims about reefs, and a ruling may be handed down in 2015. Both the Philippines and Vietnam have done a good job clarifying their territorial claims, Capt. Bell offered.
The captain emphasized that freedom of navigation and overflight must not be allowed to erode, particularly at the hands of a nation’s unilateral declarations. He emphatically stated his personal opinion that the United States should ratify the International Law of the Sea Treaty as soon as possible, as this will give the country access to the treaty’s resolution mechanisms. The United States already observes the treaty, but ratification will give it greater leverage in disputes.