In a speech in Hong Kong last Thursday, pioneering China legal scholar Jerome Cohen said China was looking like a "bully" for rejecting international arbitration of its territorial dispute with the Philippines, according to a South China Morning Post report.
The two countries both claim the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, which are believed to hold rich oil and gas reserves. The Philippines has sought arbitration before a United Nations tribunal but China has insisted on a bilateral resolution.
"The leadership obviously took the view that damage is likely to be less, especially if it can coerce the Philippines into further compromise while arbitration is going on," said Cohen, who is a New York University School of Law professor as well as of counsel at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind & Garrison, at a speech at Hong Kong University.
"This makes China look bad to the world community … Now it looks like a bully that rejects its legal obligation to settle a dispute under [the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea]," said Cohen. "How is it for any nation to say we’re so correct that we don’t have to go to the impartial tribunal we previously agreed on to hear our views validated?"
In April, the Chinese foreign ministry issued a Chinese language statement saying the Philippines "is trying to use this [arbitration claim] to negate China’s territorial sovereignty and attach a veneer of ‘legality’ to its illegal occupation of Chinese islands and reefs." The statement said China would never agree to international arbitration.
"When you’re seen to be a violator of international law, you don’t win many votes from the world community," Cohen said, and added that all "great powers" including the U.S .and China need to be reminded that they are "subject to international limits they sometimes don’t like."
As a Harvard Law School professor in the 1960s and 1970s, Cohen advised the Nixon White House on its eventual diplomatic opening with China. He subsequently led the first foreign law office in China for Coudert Brothers and remains an active teacher and commentator on Chinese legal affairs.
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