Washington’s outsider position undercuts its message as it urges China to respect global maritime norms. After all, China ratified UNCLOS in 1996, even if Beijing now says it rejects any judgment by the Permanent Court of Arbitration. In a speech in Washington earlier this month, retired Chinese top diplomat Dai Bingguo accused the U.S. of “heavy-handed intervention” in the South China Sea. “Accidents could happen,” said the still influential Chinese Communist Party official, “and the South China Sea might sink into chaos and so might the entirety of Asia.” Still, even as Beijing has launched a public-relations blitz ahead of the July 12 ruling, Chinese state media and diplomatic statements have not highlighted America’s AWOL status in UNCLOS. Perhaps critiquing the U.S. absence is harder when China itself is distancing itself from one of the treaty’s utilized tribunals.
It’s true that even if Congress hasn’t ratified UNCLOS, the U.S. Navy, which is the world’s largest, adheres to its principles. American top brass openly support U.S. ratification. “I think that in the 21st century our moral standing is affected by the fact that we are not a signatory to UNCLOS,” said Admiral Harry Harris, head of the U.S. Pacific Command, in testimony to the House Armed Services Committee earlier this year.
In a June speech at the U.S. Air Force Academy, U.S. President Barack Obama urged Congress to move ahead on UNCLOS. “If we’re truly concerned about China’s actions in the South China Sea,” he said in his commencement address, “the Senate should help strengthen our case by approving the Law of the Sea convention, as our military leaders have urged.” But ratifying the convention will require a two-thirds majority in the Senate, an all but impossibility particularly in this contentious election year. The U.S. Navy will continue to ply the high seas, acting as the world’s oceanic policeman by engaging in freedom-of-navigation exercises to ensure open trade routes. But American hypocrisy when it comes to maritime rule of law looks likely to endure.