China wants to be global maritime judicial centre

Chief Justice Zhou said a global hub will also help China implement the national strategy of becoming a "maritime power".
Chief Justice Zhou said a global hub will also help China implement the national strategy of becoming a "maritime power".

Ambition for international status comes amid sea disputes with neighbouring countries

China will seek to become an international maritime judicial centre to better protect its national sovereignty, maritime rights and "core interests", said Chief Justice Zhou Qiang.

Citing figures to bolster his case yesterday, he said China already tops the world with the biggest load of maritime court cases and is also home to the most extensive maritime judicial system.

Mr Zhou, president of the Supreme People's Court, said China's 10 maritime courts handled some 16,000 cases last year, up from 12,000 in 2014 and 11,000 in 2013.

"(We) must improve the work of maritime courts and build an international maritime judicial centre," he said in his report on the court's work to some 5,000 lawmakers and political advisers.

He added that being a global hub will also help China implement the national strategy of becoming a "maritime power", a goal first cited after a Communist Party conclave at the end of 2012 that saw President Xi Jinping take power.

It will also serve Mr Xi's "One Belt, One Road" strategy of reviving two ancient trade routes to Europe.

Mr Zhou did not reiterate the steps to becoming a global hub that he had outlined for the first time at a work conference last December.

These included properly defining the scope of the maritime courts, setting common standards in adjudication, deepening international exchanges and beefing up publicity of China's maritime judicial work.

He had also revealed China's other reasons for becoming a hub, saying it could take part in setting international maritime guidelines and use influential case rulings "to enhance international maritime law with Chinese wisdom".

China's ambition is set amid simmering tensions arising from territorial spats in its neighbouring seas, which are regarded as part of its core interests.

Sino-Japanese tensions have eased over the Diaoyu/Senkaku isles in the East China Sea. But friction has intensified in the South China Sea, where China faces overlapping territorial claims from Taiwan and four Asean countries.

There are also concerns over how China would respond to an international court ruling in the coming months on its dispute with the Philippines in the South China Sea. Beijing has refused to take part in the hearing before the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague.

Ms Susan Finder, a Hong Kong- based expert on China's judiciary, said China's ambition could be part of "a push to move the locus of maritime dispute resolution from London and other centres in Europe to China, where Chinese parties will encounter a more familiar dispute resolution system".

The visiting fellow at Peking University's School of Transnational Law in Shenzhen added that other goals include exercising its jurisdiction over development and utilisation of marine waters it claims.

Reflecting this goal, Mr Zhou yesterday cited a case involving a Chinese fishing boat that collided with a Panama-flagged cargo ship off Diaoyu Islands in September 2014.

He said the case, which the boat owner took to the Xiamen maritime court and later resolved via mediation, showed China's jurisdiction over the Diaoyu group's waters.

Singapore-based South China Sea expert Ian Storey told The Straits Times that Beijing's ambition could be driven by its view of existing judicial bodies as "pro-Western and biased against China".

"Perhaps China will try to bypass them altogether by establishing its own maritime courts. It is highly doubtful, however, that neighbouring countries will recognise their jurisdiction," he added.

Mr Zhou also gave figures on China's push to beef up the rule of law on other fronts. The number of convictions involving terrorism and secessionist activities rose from 712 in 2014 to 1,419 last year.

Lawsuits brought by the public against government agencies also jumped from 151,000 in 2014 to 241,000 last year. The state paid 240 million yuan (S$50.7 million) in compensation, up from 110 million yuan in 2014, as the number of compensation cases doubled from 2,708 to 5,439 last year.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 14, 2016, with the headline 'China wants to be global maritime judicial centre'. Print Edition | Subscribe