The high seas could turn into lawless stretches if not for global rules like those of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos), which over 160 countries and the European Union support. Its purposes are entirely laudable: to provide a legal order for the oceans and to enshrine freedom of the seas. The latter was a doctrine advanced as early as the 17th century to ensure that beyond a specified strip of waters by a nation's coastline, the rest of the seas would belong to none. Like free passage therein, the resources of the oceans and ocean floors should remain the common heritage of mankind.
Who could argue against such eminently sound objectives? Yet China is seen to subvert the very treaty that it signed onto. Most prominent is the growing militarisation of the South China Sea by the major power, reflected by the airbases it has built on small spits of land. In serving as launch pads for Chinese fighter jets and missiles, these installations are an attempt to foreclose any possibility of another littoral state demonstrating its rights to these waters. With skewed logic, China claims it's the United States that is militarising the South China Sea, when the US is sending its ships to the region to defend the right of free passage.
Similarly, China said last year that it "has no objection to Indonesia's sovereignty over the Natuna Islands". Yet it uses its coast guard to protect Chinese fishing vessels poaching in Indonesia's exclusive economic zone, which China claims as its "traditional fishing grounds". While United States Defence Secretary Ashton Carter was right to call for a "principled regional order" at the Shangri-La Dialogue this month, the Americans could scarcely push the line about respecting Unclos after failing to ratify the convention - said to have been blocked for years in the US Senate by conservative Republicans. But Mr Carter voiced a widely held view when he urged China to respect the upcoming ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration on the South China Sea dispute.
International treaties, norms and institutions are all that separates the world from a grim future in which might is right. Unclos was a response to precisely the threats posed by maritime powers vying for dominance. When the US unilaterally extended its jurisdiction over all resources on its continental shelf in 1945, other states were quick to follow with similar actions. That process has continued for decades, leading to a "multitude of claims, counter-claims and sovereignty disputes" as the United Nations noted. Against this backdrop, there was much to celebrate when the world was able to establish an international sea and seabed regime. No responsible power should negate such a hard-won achievement.