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China chalks up success in push to promote favoured candidates on international bodies

·4 min read

This week's re-election of a Chinese member to a United Nations maritime commission is success for Beijing's efforts to get its candidates into positions of international influence even though its efforts are still falling short in other areas.

On Wednesday Tang Yong, who had been serving as one of 21 members of the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf since 2017, was re-elected for another five-year term from 2023 to 2028.

China has always had a seat on the commission, which rules on claims that have significant economic and political importance, since 1997.

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The commission was established by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to facilitate the implementation of the law and make recommendations on whether countries can claim waters of the continental shelf beyond their Exclusive Economic Zones.

China has been criticised by many countries for making excessive claims contrary to the UNCLOS in the South China Sea and violating international law - especially after it refused to take part in or accept the ruling by an international court regarding a dispute with the Philippines in the Spratly Islands in 2016.

But Beijing has defended itself as being compliant with the UNCLOS.

Last month China also expressed opposition to Japan's application to the commission to extend its continental shelf on the Okinotori Reef - saying the claim was "selfish" and "contrary to international law".

"[Tang's re-election] reflects the international community's recognition of his credentials and competency as well as approval of China's observance of the international law of the sea, including UNCLOS, and commitment to true multilateralism," foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said, expressing "sincere thanks" to all those who backed him.

Tang is only one of the relatively few senior Chinese officials in international organisations.

Of the UN's 15 specialised agencies, two - the Food and Agriculture Organization and the International Telecommunication Union - are currently headed by Chinese secretaries-general.

Two others - the International Civil Aviation Organization and the Industrial Development Organization - just saw their Chinese chiefs leave office in 2021. Chinese representatives also hold deputy or executive positions in other key institutions such as the WTO, IMF and World Bank.

The presence of Chinese members in international bodies has occasionally caused controversy - most recently in March, when Xue Hanqin, a member of the International Court of Justice, joined her Russian colleague as the only votes against an order that Russia suspend its military operations in Ukraine.

In another major scandal in 2018, Meng Hongwei, the first Chinese head of Interpol, went missing on a trip back to China and it later emerged that he had been detained and jailed for corruption.

Tian Shichen, a senior research fellow and director of the Centre for International Law of Military Operations in Beijing, said Tang's re-election would help promote mutual understanding between China and the international community.

"Compared with Japan and South Korea, the number of Chinese nationals working in international organisations is very low," said Tian. "They must remain neutral in these organisations but when there are flaws like discriminatory views against China, they are ready to clarify."

Another Beijing-based international law expert said Tang's re-election could help China better understand international rules, but it will not help in its sovereignty claims in the South China Sea.

"China will still stick to its current trend of avoiding lawsuits in this field," said the person, who requested anonymity because he is not allowed to discuss the matter in public.

"China understands deep down that almost all international laws of the sea are not on its side, and that it does not have enough qualified maritime law talents to deal with these law suits."

This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice reporting on China and Asia for more than a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP app or visit the SCMP's Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright © 2022 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

Copyright (c) 2022. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.