Asia Trip Underscores the Need to Ratify Law of the Sea Treaty
Posted by Jacob Stokes
While I was reading through the coverage of the president’s big month in Asia, the pressing importance of ratifying the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea was underscored once again. Reuters reports on comments by Hillary Clinton about ongoing disputes in the South China Sea:
She said disputes in the sea lanes, a possible flashpoint in Asia, should be resolved through the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which defined rules on how countries can use the world's oceans and their resources.
That could embolden Southeast Asia's hand against China, which has said it would not submit to international arbitration over competing claims to the area, believed to be rich in natural resources and a major shipping lane…
"The United States does not take a position on any territorial claim, because any nation with a claim has a right to assert it," she said in Manila, while marking the 60th anniversary of the U.S.-Philippine Mutual Defense Treaty.
"But they do not have a right to pursue it through intimidation or coercion. They should be following international law, the rule of law, the U.N. Convention on Law of the Sea."
Clinton went on to say that the U.S. sees the Law of the Sea Treaty as the framework through which all disputes should be settled. Such a claim would have a lot more resonance if the United States was party to the treaty. With less than a year until the election, it’s highly unlikely – nay, impossible – that the treaty will pass before voters go to the polls. But it should be high priority post-2012.
Members of Congress and senators from both parties should support it. Conservatives should get beyond their narrow concerns about giving up a small slice of sovereignty, as well as their dislike of international organizations broadly, and understand that UNCLOOS is a key treaty for standing behind Asian allies. It’s an important mechanism for ensuring their ability to resolve disputes like the ones in the South China Sea through a law-based process instead of succumbing to, as Clinton put it, intimidation and coercion.
As Adm. Thad Allen, Richard Armitage and John Hamre argued back in April in the New York Times:
Ratification makes sense militarily as well. According to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the convention “codifies navigation and overflight rights and high seas freedoms that are essential for the global mobility of our armed forces.” In other words, it enhances national security by giving our Navy additional flexibility to operate on the high seas and in foreign exclusive economic zones and territorial seas. This is particularly important in the Asia Pacific region and the South China Sea, where tensions among China, Japan and Southeast Asian nations have increased because of conflicting interpretations of what constitutes territorial and international waters…
…Last July, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton gained much respect by reassuring the Southeast Asian nations that the United States strongly supported multilateral efforts to address those territorial disputes in the South China Sea, and denounced China’s heavy-handed, unilateral tactics. But strong American positions like that are ultimately undermined by our failure to ratify the convention; it shows we are not really committed to a clear legal regime for the seas.
The Law of the Sea Treaty will help us back our allies in Asia and encourage China to rise responsibly – it should be a commonsense part of America’s pivot back to Asia.