America tackles China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea from a legal angle, but the law it refers to is one the U.S. itself isn’t a party to. As Andrew Browne writes in this week’s China’s World column:
In the contest for control over the South China Sea and its natural resources, China always has been very careful to use legal constructs to justify its creeping advances, no matter how dubious they may appear to its neighbors.
In response, the U.S. has been shifting its own focus to the legal domain. It’s insistent that when it comes to maritime rights and access to natural resources, the law that truly matters is international law—and, above all, the Law of the Sea, a 1982 treaty under the auspices of the United Nations. In addition to the U.S. Seventh Fleet and military deterrence, America’s most prominent counter to Chinese assertiveness is a legal one.
There’s one problem, though: The U.S. Senate hasn’t ratified the treaty, making America one of very few holdouts: 166 other countries, including China, have acceded to the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, which sets the global rules for use of the world’s seas and oceans.