China is seeking to change international maritime norms and U.S. absence from UNCLOS is abetting them
[ Page 79 ]
Instead of reinforcing the existing international legal order, China is seeking to change the rules and norms that define international maritime rights. In the South China Sea, this results in friction, as China’s neighbors and the United States insist on preserving their maritime rights. Managing this friction will be challenging, but the United States and its regional friends and allies should continue to work together to encourage China to accept the existing norms and support the pillars of globalization rather than undermin- ing them. This perspective was reflected in the Department of Defense’s 2011 Annual Report to Congress on Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China, which states, “The United States welcomes a strong, prosperous, and successful China that reinforces international rules and norms and enhances 29 security and peace both regionally and globally.” Unfortunately, that statement must still be taken as aspirational with regard to the laws, rules and norms that govern maritime security and provide order in the maritime global commons.
In truth, these norms have also been weakened by American neglect. Even as the Chinese have put pressure on the existing system, the United States has failed to exercise full, effective and active leadership. By its failure to ratify UNCLOS, the United States remains – along with such dubi- ous international companions as Iran and North Korea – fundamentally a spectator in a system that it largely created, that governs international relations and activities in the maritime domain and that has now been accepted by 161 states and the European Union.
As the pre-eminent global maritime power, the U.S. has significant interests in the global effect of the Convention’s rules and their interpretation with many issues that of greater concern to us than to most other countries (for example, preserving freedom of navigation rights). Our adversaries view this as a weakness they can exploit and are shaping the course of the convention in ways adverse to U.S. interests while the U.S. remains on the sidelines, unable to participate in the discussion as a non-party.