Why the U.N. Law of the Seas Treaty Means Jobs — And Security — for America
Economic security is vital to our national security. Yet, there are very few laws that pass through Congress that share such a strategic nexus. The U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) has that nexus – if ratified, it will provide economic benefits and strengthen our national security.
Unfortunately, the Senate has failed to ratify the international treaty even after the Senate Foreign Relations Committee unanimously approved it in 2004, and Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush advocated for its ratification.
In fact, there are few pieces of legislative work that enjoy such bi-partisan support. The Chamber of Commerce and domestic industries to include shipping, fisheries, telecommunications, and energy agree that ratification means new or approved markets. Even non-governmental organizations who are concerned with the protection of natural resources have consistently supported accession to the treaty.
UNCLOS creates Exclusive Economic Zones, or sovereign rights to manage an ocean’s natural resources within a 200 mile zone starting from a member nation’s coast. No country stands to benefit more than the United States – the exclusive zone that the United States would inherit by ratifying UNCLOS is bigger than its lower 48 states combined. In other words, access to opportunity – opportunity to mine seabed mineral resources, tap oil and gas fields, and lay fiber optic cables with international legal protection and certainty.
Enter China – our strongest competitor on both the economic and national security fronts, and a perfect example as to why these two fronts can never again be viewed as mutually exclusive. There is a new arena for U.S.-Chinese competition – the South China Sea.
The South China Sea is quickly becoming the center of gravity for geo-political tensions in the Asia-Pacific region. This body of water is simply too valuable to international commerce – half the world’s oil, gas, and shipping tonnage traverses through the South China Sea. Bottom-line, the South China Sea easily rivals the Persian Gulf in global economic importance, and like the Persian Gulf, this body of water must remain open for business.
The legal certainty that UNCLOS provides as a treaty would be critical to U.S. leadership on the world’s oceans and in potential flash points like the South China Sea. As it currently stands, the U.S. has to rely on customary international law and its ambiguous norms to secure navigational rights and protect its vessels from foreign harassment. UNCLOS would ensure Freedom of Navigation and Innocent Passage for our military and commercial vessels in the South China Sea. Because China has already ratified the Treaty, it could not block our vessels from passing through its territorial waters.
UNCLOS would also allow the U.S. to challenge China’s behavior on the firmest legal ground. China regularly violates the economic rights of other South China Sea countries by laying claim to ocean territory with valuable natural resources reserved to our allies in the region. Recently, China has been attempting to expand its property in the South China Sea and has been in a tense ship to ship standoff with the Philippines over the Scarborogh Shoal and its natural resources.
Territorial disputes will continue to arise with Vietnam, Taiwan, Brunei, and Malaysia also claiming property in the Sea. As China has been slowing expanding its territorial claims through boundary lines that are conveniently vague and widely unaccepted, it relies on its economic muscle to prevent other South China Sea nations from collectively bringing claims under the Treaty, and instead takes on each claimant member nation individually. If the United States ratifies UNCLOS, we could use our legal standing under the Treaty and our own economic muscle to prevent China from pushing its neighbors around.
Since the rise of China as a player in the global market, the United States has struggled to keep the economic powerhouse from manipulating everything from currency to intellectual property rights to international laws. Ratifying UNCLOS would be a means to hold China accountable while the United States begins its strategic pivot towards Asia and looks to build its economy at home.
Douglas Peters, J.D., is a member of Truman’s Veteran Leadership Academy.