Secretary Pompeo’s Surprising Defense of International Law, Allies, and the Law of the Sea Convention
(Just Security | July 15, 2020) On Monday, Secretary of State Pompeo issued a strongly worded, highly legalistic statement lambasting excessive Chinese maritime claims in the South China Sea.
I welcome Pompeo’s statement as a substantive legal matter. It is long overdue. Nevertheless, it showcased the United States’ current schizophrenic approach to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), its international allies in the Indo-Pacific region and elsewhere, and international law more generally. The United States should seek to reaffirm and reinforce its commitment to international law through UNCLOS Senate ratification. While doing so is by no means a magic bullet, it would serve as an important signal of the U.S. commitment to a rules-based order in the South China Sea and beyond.
To recap: for years, China has been making excessive claims in the region, pointing to a so-called historic “Nine-Dash Line” as the legal basis for these claims. This envelops an enormous swath of the South China Sea, encroaching on other nations’ maritime boundaries. And China is following through on its excessive claims: it has shown a willingness to employ aggressive tactics — including flexing military muscle — against other coastal states in Southeast Asia. It also has been building massive structures on contested “low tide elevations” and “rocks” in the area. These formerly uninhabited formations barely rise above sea level. They don’t qualify as “islands” under international law and, therefore, don’t create a critically important exclusive economic zone around them. But that has not stopped China from building and asserting one …