UNCLOS is having a normative effect on shaping China's laws and behavior
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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.
U.S. capability to influence China would 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 this leadership from within the ranks, not just from outside them.