A Broader Trend of Engagement for China? On China’s Vote in Favour of an International Piracy Tribunal


It is fair to observe that China has generally disassociated itself with the flow of the international criminal justice. Voting against the Rome Statute in 1998 has best elaborated its stand on this issue. An “overly active” global court is perceived to have the potential to jeopardize state sovereignty, the cornerstone of the Five Principles of Peaceful Co-Existence China has consistently adhered to in its engagement of international affairs. A survey of China’s involvement with all the other UN-backed tribunals further confirms the above observation. Apart from Chinese judges, I am aware of only two senior staff to work in UN international tribunals. China is rarely interested in the work of these tribunals. Starting with low expectations, commentators were amazed, if not at all surprised, by China’s vote in favour of an international tribunal to prosecute piracy. In his speech at the UNSC debate, Chinese Ambassador Wang said his country would be in favour of the option of prosecution in Tanzania in an international court. To what extent is this an indicator of China’s broader trend of engagement with international criminal justice?

Observers arguing in favour of this proposition would suggest this happens in a wave of change in China’s view on international tribunals. In particular, China (the People’s Republic of China only took back the seat in the United Nations in 1971) for the first time appeared before the International Court of Justice in its proceedings in the Kosovo Advisory Opinion. China’s participation in this case is full-fledged, by both submitting written submissions as well as participating in the oral arguments. Lead by Ministry of Foreign Affair’s Legal Adviser, Ambassador Xue Hanqin (who later become a Judge at ICJ), the strength of the team is also unprecedented. As the words of Ambassador Xue plainly put:

[although] this is the first time for the People’s Republic of China to participate in the proceedings of the Court, the Chinese Government has always held great respect for the authority and importance of the Court in the field of international law.

If it is true that China has always paid tribute to the work of the ICJ, why is it only in 2009 that China first joined in its proceedings? One of the reasons is the nature of this case. It concerns the competing interests of the sovereign territorial integrity of a state and a minority group’s wish for independence under the principle of self-declaration. One may find it very easy to relate the situation to those China has been facing with regard to Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang. All of these regions are legally and constitutionally part of China and recognized as such by the overall majority of international community. Yet each of them has been through different degrees of secessionist movements, in particular Taiwan, which arguably has been enjoying a de facto independent status. Beijing has unequivocally submitted these territorial integrity issues as the core interests of China. To resolve these issues in favour of China has always been one of the foremost tasks of Chinese diplomats like Ambassador Xue and her team. Fortunately enough for us in favour of the proper functioning of international law, she has successfully persuaded the country and its rulers to endorse her endeavour at the International Court of Justice.

Those who are sceptical of the above proposition might suggest that this is also true for the case of international prosecution of piracy: enormous Chinese interests are at stake. Chinese vessels are not immune to piracy. In a wave of pirate attacks in 2008, a Hong Kong vessel was seized in September 2008. Later another attempted siege was launched on a Chinese fishery boat in December 2008 and was fortunately defeated by “friendly countries’ force”. At the end of that year, China decided to send its own battle vessels to the area, a practice lasting until today. Nevertheless, Chinese vessels continue to be harassed by pirates. For example, the Chinese vessel “De Xin Hai” was seized in October 2009. After arduous negotiations, Beijing was forced to pay a large ransom. China’s efforts have also extended to transnational crime along international rivers, more particular the Mekong. China has prominently displayed its naval force in response to recent deadly attacks along the river. In conclusion, a lesson has been learnt in Beijing: there must be an orchestrated effort in this regard, probably including the international prosecution of crimes.

Having highlighted the special situation of these two cases, the question to be answered is will these be the only isolated incidents? I would refute that argument. Simply stated, for a country as significant as China with national interests interspersed throughout the globe, these examples tend to exhibit a general pattern rather than isolated incidents. No Chinese would have imagined China being so much involved in piracy off the coast of an East African country. Yet here we are.  As Chinese have frequently said, there is always a direct cause and a fundamental cause for an event. Applying this formulation to the trend of engagement with international criminal justice, the tangible Chinese interests at stake are the direct cause whilst the fundamental cause is the rising awareness of the value of international law, the functioning of the international courts and at its remote back the growing role of China in the global affairs.

A further extension of this principle to the International Criminal Court is still far off and the road to Rome will not be easy. After Ambassador Xue’s team headed back to China, challenges to this endeavour appeared. Critics believe if the sovereign integrity argument was refused by the International Court of Justice, the legitimacy of this consistently adhered-to position will be undermined. This was later proved to be not at all pessimistic. After all, China has much to learn in defending its national interest through the international justice system. Yet the signal is clear, China is getting on board!

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