Who’s the hypocrite? South China Sea ed.

Map of South China Sea

Source: BBC

While all eyes are turned to Ukraine and Nigeria, China’s disputes with its neighbors continue to fester. The latest is the ramming of Vietnamese vessels by Chinese vessels in the South  China sea. China claims a big chunk of that body of water–meaning the unoccupied islands on it and the minerals underneath it. The U.S. argues, very plausibly (see map  above), that China’s claim violates the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which limits coastal countries to undersea minerals only a few hundreds of miles out rather than the vast distances that China claims. So do China’s neighbors–Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia. But the funny thing about the U.S. argument is that the United States itself never ratified UNCLOS, instead declaring some parts of it that it liked “customary international law,” not the rest. So who’s the hypocrite?

No one. Not China, not the U.S. The villain is UNCLOS itself,  which attempts to settle all the world’s maritime disputes in a single multilateral document. (Well, almost all; it punts a few of them.) The problem is that territorial and maritime disputes in different parts of the world are not susceptible to simple principles like equidistance lines and uniform territorial seas and economic zones. They are all local and contextual. And unlike domestic legislation, there is no practical way to amend and update it; it’s frozen in stone. The U.S. probably should ratify UNCLOS but little pieces of the treaty bother important constituencies and so the executive branch has reasonably announced its acceptance of the rules that are not controversial. China should probably not have ratified the treaty, which lays down rules inconsistent with its claims–the treaty not surprisingly favors countries with huge coasts like the U.S. unless, as in China’s cases, other landmasses lie a short distance away–but back in the 1990s it was intent on being a good citizen while it was accumulating power. Now the government has little choice but to selectively violate terms it can’t live with.

Here’s more on the topic.