Treaty Gives Us a Stronger Hand in the Region
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, center, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, right, and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin E. Dempsey testify on Capitol Hill in May before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the Law of the Sea Convention. Photo: AP.
by Nina Hachigian
China’s rise adds to a growing list of reasons to ratify the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea. Senate ratification of the treaty, which sets out a legal framework for conduct in the world’s oceans, will put the United States in an even stronger position to preserve our freedom of navigation in the South and East China Seas against any potential Chinese attempts to restrict our access, now and in the future. It will also allow us to be an even more forceful advocate for a rules-based process when it comes to territorial disputes in those waters and will lend Washington more credibility as it pushes China to follow international laws and norms.
Let’s start with that final reason.
Ratification puts the United States in a stronger position as it works to integrate China into the international system
If the United States ratifies the Law of the Sea Convention, we will have more credibility when we argue that China needs to become a “responsible stakeholder”—in the words of former President George W. Bush’s Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick—in the international system.
America has been pressing Beijing to join international frameworks of rules and norms to create a level, predictable playing field for all; to bring China into the work of tackling shared threats across the world; and to ensure that China’s rise supports rather than disrupts the global system that America and our allies created after World War II. These rules and norms support international trade and economic integration across the world and helped enable China’s astronomical economic growth in recent decades.
It’s true the People’s Republic of China has come a long way since its early days when it totally shunned the international community—and vice versa. Today China is deeply engaged in the international system on a number of levels. In international venues such as the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, and the G-20, the Chinese show up, they are serious, and they often contribute constructively to policy questions.
Yet China still falls far short of its international commitments when it comes to World Trade Organization rules, international intellectual property standards, International Monetary Fund guidelines on its currency, and the U.N. Declaration on Human Rights, to name a few important areas.
The tables are turned on the Law of the Sea: Because of our failure to ratify the convention, the United States stands outside the international system that we champion. China, 161 other nations, and the European Union have all ratified the convention. The United States remains a “nonparty” to the convention, along with a handful of other nations, including some political pariahs such as Syria, North Korea, and Iran.
It is difficult for America to be a credible champion of rules and norms in the international system when we have not signed on to the international law that governs what can happen in the oceans that cover nearly three-fourths of the planet.
Ratification gives us a stronger position as we navigate issues in the South China Sea
More specifically, ratifying the Law of the Sea Convention will lock in the terms that are extremely favorable to America in our disputes with China over freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. We currently have regular disagreements with the Chinese over where America’s military assets can travel in the oceans near China’s shores. The Law of the Sea would address these issues because it explicitly lays out rules and definitions in ways that the United States helped shape when the convention was written.
Let’s take a very brief detour into maritime legal terms: The Law of the Sea Convention provides clear definitions—ones that the United States prefers—of a state’s “territorial waters” and also its jurisdiction in the all-important “exclusive economic zone.”
Under the convention, a coastal state’s “territorial waters” start from its nautical baseline—basically where the ocean hits the shore at low tide—and extends 12 nautical miles out to sea.
The Law of the Sea convention says these territorial waters are part of the sovereign territory of the coastal state. This means coastal states can make laws that apply to activities on these waters and own any resources in the waters and the seabed, including fish and other sea life, oil, natural gas, and metals and minerals. (There is another “contiguous” zone 24 miles out that is relevant to immigration and health laws but not to this article.)
The next zone, extending out to 200 nautical miles from shore, is the nation’s exclusive economic zone. In this zone the coastal state has rights for the purposes of “exploring and exploiting, conserving and managing the natural resources, whether living or non-living.” Other countries have freedoms of “navigation and over-flight,” among others.
Only the coastal state can therefore exploit its exclusive economic zone’s resources. But its domestic laws do not apply in the zone, and the coastal state cannot stop another country’s civilian or military ships from traveling through it.