The US and China are engaged in “lawfare” – the use of international law as an instrument of warfare – in the South China Sea, according to Professor Tommy Koh, Ambassador-at-Large at Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The current level of strategic confrontation and contestation between the US and China has not been seen since the Cold War, raising questions over whether the world is witnessing the outbreak of a “new Cold War”, added Prof Koh, who is also Chairman of the Governing Board of the NUS Centre for International Law (CIL), at a recent webinar.
Offering a more optimistic point of view, Deputy Attorney General Lionel Yee affirmed that the US-China rivalry would not stymie agreement or block progress on all international law issues. He observed that the Cold War did not prevent major international law conventions from being agreed, such as the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations and the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.
Mr Yee also shared that both the US and China came to Singapore last year to sign the Singapore Convention on Mediation, and continued to actively participate in UN negotiations, including negotiations on biodiversity beyond national jurisdiction.
Prof Simon Chesterman, Dean of NUS Law, agreed that a “new Cold War” was far from pre-determined. He argued that the US, China and the rest of the world are far more economically integrated and interdependent compared to the Cold War. Countries with close ties to both powers do not want to be forced to choose between the two, and there isn’t a fundamental ideological division between the two powers, he said.
The panellists were speaking at the “Roundtable on International Law and Asia”, hosted by CIL to mark the launch of its ground-breaking CIL Singapore Academy of International Law (CIL eAcademy). The session was moderated by CIL Director Dr Nilüfer Oral and CIL eAcademy co-Director Prof Patricia Galvão Teles, both of whom are members of the UN’s International Law Commission.
Navigation by small states
The speakers also discussed issues such as the impact of COVID-19 on international law and institutions; the impact of climate change and technological developments on international law; and how small countries like Singapore can navigate the “new normal” and uncertain global world order.
Ms Daphne Hong, Director-General of the International Affairs Division of the Attorney General’s Chambers, expressed the view that lawfare was better than warfare, and reiterated Singapore’s longstanding position in favour of mandatory third party dispute resolution, if diplomacy and negotiations fail to resolve a dispute.
Small countries can in fact play a role in international relations and international organisations through creative and skilful diplomacy, observed NUS Pro-Chancellor Prof S Jayakumar, who is also Chairman of the CIL International Advisory Panel. He spoke about how Singapore and smaller countries can navigate the US-China rivalry, based on his past experience as Singapore’s Foreign Minister.
CIL eAcademy to advance teaching on International Law
The roundtable kickstarted CIL’s eAcademy, which provides part-time online training for law students, academics, diplomats and lawyers, to advance their learning on international law, taught by some of the world’s best international lawyers.
The CIL eAcademy has drawn interest from 126 participants from 32 countries. They will be taking online courses delivered by more than 30 distinguished faculty members, including legal practitioners from around the world such as current and former judges of the International Court of Justice and other International Courts and Tribunals, members of the United Nations International Law Commission, ambassadors, and other top international law practitioners.
Prof Jayakumar noted that COVID-19 has posed big challenges for organisations like CIL, but CIL has adapted using technology, creativity and innovation, to organise a landmark eAcademy that was the first-of-its-kind in Asia. He applauded CIL Director Dr Nilüfer Oral and eAcademy co-Director Patricia Galvão Teles, as well as the CIL events team including Gerry Ng and Chan Sze Wei, for putting the eAcademy together.
Prof Patricia Galvão Teles, who is based in Lisbon, Portugal, shared, “The idea of having an eAcademy is really a project that was born out of the lockdown period, where we were all at home thinking of ways to continue engaging with international law teaching and dissemination.”
She added, “The pandemic has brought new opportunities. Thinking about a project that was conceived specifically for this period and with the constraints and the opportunities that we have now in the digital world was the motivation behind creating this academy.”
CIL Director Nilüfer Oral explained, “The CIL eAcademy aims to further our core vision and mission to enable the Asia-Pacific region to play a more significant role in the promotion and development of international law. This starts with building knowledge.”
“The CIL eAcademy brings together lecturers and participants from different parts of the world, reflecting its aim to be a global centre for international law. It has also invited top international law scholars and practitioners to teach on a broad range of topics including international law-making, state responsibility, peace and security, law of the sea, international environmental law, disaster law, and trade and investment law”, said Dr Oral.
The CIL eAcademy will run from September through December, and will include a free guest lecture by a distinguished faculty member on each week’s topic that can be accessed on Wednesdays at 4pm on CIL’s Facebook page, and will thereafter be posted on CIL’s podcast webpage and YouTube channel.