Viribus Mari Victoria? Power and Law in the South China Sea
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Third, leverage the gravitational power of international norms. The United States should continue to bring its diplomatic power to bear to persuade and encourage parties to pursue diplomatic or institutional measures. Continued American leadership in this regard may also give encouragement to other states inclined to voice similar expectations. American persuasive power would also be strengthened by a reassertion of the American leadership role over the development of international law of the sea. Since UNCLOS is the basis of modern international law of the sea, the U.S. should ratify the Convention in order to more effectively exercise, maintain, and perpetuate its leadership and to strengthen the normative framework that UNCLOS provides.
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Fourth, remain neutral about sovereignty, but not about drawing boundaries at sea. The American policy of neutrality on the outcome of sovereignty disputes—that is disputes over the ownership of islands, rocks, and reefs--is a good one, as long as the dispute is resolved without the use of force. Our refusal to be drawn into conflict with a rising power over a piece of territory that is relatively trivial is an important aspect of regional and global stability. On the other hand, the United States has a strong interest in seeing the provisions of UNCLOS strengthened, since they provide the only near-universal framework that decreases resource and security disputes in the maritime domain. As such, the American policy should be to consistently reinforce UNCLOS as the basis for resource boundaries in the South China Sea. The United States Department of State should issue a public, official statement that challenges any right for China to use the 9-dashed as a basis for maritime boundary making. China must not be allowed to use its view of history or its coercive power or any other basis to alter the existing rule set that has provided global stability in what otherwise might have been a very contentious domain. International law must be the only basis for all states to make resource claims in the South China Sea. The United States, indeed all countries, have a vital interest in the strength of the methods of UNCLOS for allocating coastal state rights to resource zones. Not history, not power, but international law must be the standard.
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The most significant strength of international law—especially international treaty law—is its ability to establish norms of expected behavior among the community of sovereign states. This normative power of international law should not be underestimated for its ability to drive and shape the behavior of states toward stabilizing, predictable behavior. Maritime disputes in particular have benefited from the normative power of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). One important normative aspect of UNCLOS was its establishment of a limit of a fully sovereign territorial sea to 12-nautical miles and creation of a 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone. Prior to international negotiation of a final text in 1982, international claims reflected a hodgepodge of approaches. Indeed, as late as 1990, prior to the date in 1996 when UNCLOS came into force, thirteen states still claimed a 200 nautical mile territorial sea. By 2008, the normative power of UNCLOS reduced this number to seven. As of today six of these remaining seven States are party to UNCLOS, which through Article 3 explicitly limits the territorial sea to 12-nautical miles. Thus, on a global basis the number of states remaining beyond the normative reach of UNCLOS and continuing to claim a 200-nautical mile, fully sovereign territorial sea appears in fact to be only one—Peru.
In East Asia, in many ways there is a similar pattern of close conformity to the norms established in UNCLOS. China and Vietnam represent two countries that have not yet fully adopted its norms. In Vietnam’s case, its baselines remain grossly excessive. In China’s case, it too maintains numerous excessive, non-normative baseline claims, an ambiguous claim of historic or other rights within the 9-dashed line that has no basis under UNCLOS, and it remains a leaders among a small group of coastal states with non-normative perspectives on foreign military activities in the exclusive economic zone. Recent public coverage of Chinese naval activities in the exclusive economic zones of Japan and the United States suggest that perhaps this is one more way in which Chinese perspectives on international law will join the normative tide. However, even with the remaining deficiencies, both China and Vietnam are party to UNCLOS, have fully incorporated many of its other provisions into their domestic laws, and take an active part in the organizations established by this convention to further develop international law of the sea.