China's aggressive maritime posture is a consequence of U.S. failure of leadership on UNCLOS
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Those who argue that the United States should think twice before ratifying UNCLOS because the Convention “has done nothing to avert the current impasse in the South China Sea” are only partially right.30 True, UNCLOS has not deterred Chinese regional maritime expansionism, at least in part because the United States has failed to ensure its leadership over this cornerstone of the global system. By failing to ratify UNCLOS, the United States has allowed China, which ratified it in July 1996, to pursue its own interpreta- tions and to pressure others with the mantle of institutional legitimacy. Thailand’s recent ratifi- cation statement shows this clearly and is not a healthy development for a global system predi- cated on free and open trade through a stable maritime domain. Additionally, those South China Sea states that are attempting to conform with UNCLOS norms in order to shape Chinese behaviors and limit China’s excessive claims in the South China Sea will require full American leadership and support to be successful.
Although the cracks in the foundation so far remain hairline fractures, sustained and effective American leadership over the pillars of the global system will be essential to repair the damage and to keep the foundation solid. In the South China Sea, this will require the United States to continue to encourage progress by all parties to the region’s disputes toward bringing their laws and claims into compliance with UNCLOS. Furthermore, the United States must maintain a sustained focus on this strategically important region, providing con- sistent diplomatic leadership supported by a strong regional military presence.