UN Maritime Body Elects Chinese Official Amid Growing CCP Aggression in South China Sea

August 30, 2020 Updated: August 30, 2020

Amid international criticism over the Chinese regime’s aggression in the South China Sea, Beijing’s candidate has won a seat on a United Nations-backed judicial body that hears maritime disputes.

Duan Jielong, China’s current ambassador to Hungary, won in an election held from Aug. 24 to 26, becoming one of 21 judges at the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS). He will begin his nine-year term in October after a swearing-in ceremony. 

According to ITLOS, the election was uncontested since no one ran against Duan, who picked up 149 votes. Seventeen member states abstained. 

ITLOS was established by a mandate of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, a treaty that stipulates rights and responsibilities for how countries use oceans and their marine national resources. The European Union and 167 countries have ratified the treaty. The United States signed it in 1994 but has not ratified it. 

The tribunal is made up of 21 judges representing different geographical areas. Currently, five judges represent Africa, five represent Asia, three represent Eastern Europe, four represent Latin America and the Caribbean, and four represent Western Europe and other states.

Duan was among five people newly elected to become judges, according to an Aug. 26 press release from ITLOS. 

China currently has a judge on the tribunal, Gao Zhiguo, who was selected in 2008. His term will terminate at the end of September. 

Influence

The Chinese regime has been seeking to increase its influence at the U.N. and its related agencies. Chinese nationals currently head up four U.N. bodies: the International Civil Aviation Organization, the Food and Agriculture Organization, the International Telecommunication Union, and the United Nations Industrial Development Organization. 

Political commentator Lan Shu, in an interview with Epoch Times’ affiliate NTD, explained how the communist regime pressures international organizations into adopting its interests.

“[Beijing] buys off certain countries, especially developing countries, by offering them money or providing them financial assistance such as canceling their debts,” Lan said. “In exchange, these countries voice support [for China] on the international stage, such as voting for it at the United Nations on issues such as China’s human rights records.” 

A prominent example is Hungary, which has received billions of dollars in Chinese investment for infrastructure projects. In 2017, Hungary reportedly pressured the European Union bloc to not add its name to a joint letter by international embassies to denounce the reported torture of detained lawyers in China.

US Opposition

The elections at ITLOS come at a time when tensions between China and the United States are running high. On Aug. 27, the Pentagon warned China over its test launch of ballistic missiles during its military exercises in the South China Sea. 

In recent years, Beijing has sought to bolster its claims in the strategic waterway by building military outposts on artificial islands and reefs in the region. 

Islands, reefs, and rocks in the strategic waterway are claimed by a number of countries, including Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam.

A U.N. tribunal at The Hague ruled in 2016 that Beijing’s claim of over 90 percent of the South China Sea was not valid. 

The United States also recently formally rejected nearly all of Beijing’s major territorial claims in the region, calling them “completely unlawful.”

U.S. opposition to a Chinese judge on the ITLOS was voiced strongly by David Stilwell, assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, when he spoke at a virtual meeting held by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in July. 

“Electing a PRC official to this body is like hiring an arsonist to help run the fire department,” Stilwell said. 

In May, Jonathan G. Odom, a judge advocate in the U.S. Navy and a military professor of international law at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies in Germany, highlighted China’s questionable actions in the South China Sea. One example is when, in December 2019, Beijing sent its coast guard vessel to escort Chinese fishing ships that were operating in Indonesia’s territorial waters. 

Odam said not voting for the Chinese candidate would “send a message to China’s government that objectionable behavior can damage its standing in the international community of nations,” according to his article published on Lawfare, a blog dedicated to national security issues. 

Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) responded to the news of China’s seat at the ITLOS on her Twitter account, saying it was “extremely concerning.”

“[ITLOS] is responsible for adjudicating disputes related to the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, while China is a habitual offender in the South China Sea,” Blackburn said. 

“China’s growing influence in International Organizations is worrisome as each new seat it gains is another avenue for the #CCP to sway outcomes and shift global opinions.”

On Aug. 28, the U.S. Navy stated on Twitter that the guided-missile destroyer USS Mustin, which had been patrolling the South China Sea, was refueled at sea so it could continue its operation of maintaining a “free and open Indo-Pacific.”

Also on Aug. 28, national security adviser Robert O’Brien, during an online event held by the Atlantic Council, called China’s claims in the South China Sea “ridiculous.” 

“China’s engaged in military exercises in these waters that … they consider domestic, which are by no stretch of the imagination domestic,” O’Brien said. 

“The United States is not going to back down from its long-held principles that the world’s oceanways and international waters should be free for navigation.”

Follow Frank on Twitter: @HwaiDer