U.S. ability to peacefully resolve South China Sea disputes compromised by its non-party status to UNCLOS
As a signatory to UNCLOS, the PRC occasionally implies that its interpretations should trump those of the United States, which has yet to ratify the convention that Washington nevertheless employs as a bludgeon against Beijing’s claims that UNCLOS permits limitations by coastal states on foreign military activities in the EEZ. The message is that even though the United States asserts its compliance with UNCLOS, because it has not undertaken to be formally bound by the convention it has no standing to impose its self- regarding interpretations of the regime on those states that have ratified it.
The United States depends on support from ASEAN members to maintain effective operations in the South China Sea, so its responses to China must respect regional interests and concerns. While the United States is seen by the member states as a friend, they also know that U.S. interests are at times different from their own. The United States cannot take their support for granted. To do so may not just weaken joint responses to Chinese aggressiveness; it may put other multilateral maritime initiatives at risk, such as the Proliferation Security Initiative and anti-piracy resolutions in the U.N. Security Council.
ASEAN member states must be assured that the United States will provide a balance to growing power without becoming a threat to their interests. The United States can make this clear by emphasizing that its actions will conform with UNCLOS. As long as U.S. actions are compatible with and in support of the convention, ASEAN states will feel secure in U.S. maritime activities in their region, and China will know that there are limits that bind U.S. activities in the region.
While the credibility of the U.S. commitment to the convention is currently undercut by the country’s non- party status, this can be overcome by completing the effort of the previous administration to secure the advice and consent of the Senate to join the convention and then submit its ratification.8
Washington’s outsider position undercuts its message as it urges China to respect global maritime norms. After all, China ratified UNCLOS in 1996, even if Beijing now says it rejects any judgment by the Permanent Court of Arbitration. In a speech in Washington earlier this month, retired Chinese top diplomat Dai Bingguo accused the U.S. of “heavy-handed intervention” in the South China Sea. “Accidents could happen,” said the still influential Chinese Communist Party official, “and the South China Sea might sink into chaos and so might the entirety of Asia.” Still, even as Beijing has launched a public-relations blitz ahead of the July 12 ruling, Chinese state media and diplomatic statements have not highlighted America’s AWOL status in UNCLOS. Perhaps critiquing the U.S. absence is harder when China itself is distancing itself from one of the treaty’s utilized tribunals.
It’s true that even if Congress hasn’t ratified UNCLOS, the U.S. Navy, which is the world’s largest, adheres to its principles. American top brass openly support U.S. ratification. “I think that in the 21st century our moral standing is affected by the fact that we are not a signatory to UNCLOS,” said Admiral Harry Harris, head of the U.S. Pacific Command, in testimony to the House Armed Services Committee earlier this year.
In a June speech at the U.S. Air Force Academy, U.S. President Barack Obama urged Congress to move ahead on UNCLOS. “If we’re truly concerned about China’s actions in the South China Sea,” he said in his commencement address, “the Senate should help strengthen our case by approving the Law of the Sea convention, as our military leaders have urged.” But ratifying the convention will require a two-thirds majority in the Senate, an all but impossibility particularly in this contentious election year. The U.S. Navy will continue to ply the high seas, acting as the world’s oceanic policeman by engaging in freedom-of-navigation exercises to ensure open trade routes. But American hypocrisy when it comes to maritime rule of law looks likely to endure.
Third, American policy makers must realize that the contest for East Asia is one of both power and law. International law supports and legitimizes the exercise of American power. It ensures that the landscape of domestic and international opinion is favorable to American objectives, policies, and actions. International law of the sea in particular, through its assurances of freedom of navigation for security as well as commercial purposes, supports the continued nature of East Asia as a maritime system. International law regarding the free use of international airspace operates similarly. Accordingly, to ensure its future position in East Asia the United States should take specific actions to defend the international legal architecture pertaining to the maritime and aerial commons. Acceding to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and once again exercising direct leadership over the development of its rules and norms is the first and most critical step. The Department of State should also re-energize its Limits in the Seas series to publicly and repeatedly reinforce international law related to sea and airspace. A good place to begin the new series would be with a detailed assessment of why international law explicitly rejects China’s U-shaped line in the South China Sea as the basis for Chinese jurisdiction there. Others could be written to describe why China’s East China Sea continental shelf claim misapplies international law and why China’s ADIZ unlawfully asserts jurisdiction in the airspace. My sense is that East Asian states, indeed many states around the world, are desperate for active American leadership over the norms and laws that govern legitimate international action.
Our failure to ratify the treaty also undermines our ability to fully work with our allies and partners in the South China Sea region. If we are not party to UNCLOS, it is difficult for the United States to rely on the treaty to determine the legal entitlements of mid-ocean features, which claims are lawful, and what exactly constitutes the high seas. It’s also harder for us to suggest it as the basis for resolving claims and arbitrating disputes — or to rely on EEZs drawn under UNCLOS’s auspices. Moreover, a broad set of stakeholders including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, environmental organizations, the military, and industry specific trade groups representing commercial fishing, freight shipping and mineral extraction all support U.S. accession to the treaty. Perhaps most importantly, our military leaders have stated that U.S. participation will help them maintain navigational rights — and with less risk to the men and women they command.
It has been long-standing policy that the United States does not take a position on the ultimate disposition of the competing maritime and territorial claims made by China and other countries in the South China Sea. But we do have a position on how the claims are adjudicated, and on how questions related to the different features — reefs, rocks, shoals and islands — are classified under international law.
Supporters of the Convention do not disagree that China’s ongoing assertiveness to territory on and beneath the South China Sea is cause for concern, if not a challenge to international norms regarding freedom of the seas, said Caitlyn Antrim, executive director of the Rule of Law Committee for the Oceans, a nonpartisan educational group whose purpose is to inform public discourse regarding U.S. interests in accession to the Convention.
Antrim noted, however, that the United States could better help the situation by acceding to the Law of the Sea Convention, whereby it would have more influence in supporting the coastal states in that region.
An area of 650,000 square miles with a sea floor believed to be rich in deposits of oil and gas, and host to the world’s second busiest sea lanes, the South China Sea is an example of “creeping jurisdiction,” said Antrim, which is represented, in the case of China, by an attempt to increase its control and extend its authority at the expense of its neighbors in Southeast Asia, as well as the United States, Japan and South Korea.
“The Law of the Sea is our lever,” she told Seapower. “We can’t go in there and continually force our way. We need to have a legal regime so that everything works smoothly. All of the other countries support the Law of the Sea, and we get to add to that strength, but it’s a little difficult when we aren’t a party to it.”
In my personal opinion, the United States should join the Convention as a State Party. Legally, accession would enable the nation to enjoy the legal benefits that the Convention affords a party as a matter of conventional law, with more durable certainty. Politically, US accession would further demonstrate to other nations the US commitment to the rules-based and balanced approach of rights and responsibilities that the Convention reflects. More important than what I personally believe, the executive branch of the US Government supports and has long supported US accession to the Convention, in particular when discussing the ongoing situation in the waters of East Asia. In May of this year, President Obama acknowledged this challenge for the United States in his speech before the graduating cadets at the US Military Academy.19 He stated: “You see, American influence is always stronger when we lead by example ... We can’t try to resolve problems in the South China Sea when we have refused to make sure that the Law of the Sea Convention is rati ed by our United States Senate, despite the fact that our top military leaders say the treaty advances our national security.”
In short, the noticeable absence of the United States in the roll-call of mem- ber-states to the Law of the Sea Convention continues to handicap US efforts in the international community to promote the rules-based approach reflected in the Convention, particularly in the ways it can aid in resolving maritime-related disputes in the South China Sea. Yet, as a US citizen, I fully respect the US Senate’s constitutional role in the treaty-making process.
Fourth, remain neutral about sovereignty, but not about drawing boundaries at sea. The American policy of neutrality on the outcome of sovereignty disputes—that is disputes over the ownership of islands, rocks, and reefs--is a good one, as long as the dispute is resolved without the use of force. Our refusal to be drawn into conflict with a rising power over a piece of territory that is relatively trivial is an important aspect of regional and global stability. On the other hand, the United States has a strong interest in seeing the provisions of UNCLOS strengthened, since they provide the only near-universal framework that decreases resource and security disputes in the maritime domain. As such, the American policy should be to consistently reinforce UNCLOS as the basis for resource boundaries in the South China Sea. The United States Department of State should issue a public, official statement that challenges any right for China to use the 9-dashed as a basis for maritime boundary making. China must not be allowed to use its view of history or its coercive power or any other basis to alter the existing rule set that has provided global stability in what otherwise might have been a very contentious domain. International law must be the only basis for all states to make resource claims in the South China Sea. The United States, indeed all countries, have a vital interest in the strength of the methods of UNCLOS for allocating coastal state rights to resource zones. Not history, not power, but international law must be the standard.
Additionally, we need to reinforce the global institutions that the Law of the Sea was designed to create and support. This entails underwriting with our power and example peaceful dispute resolution based on international law and international institutions. Among these, the United States must ratify the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). As Peter Dutton testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee in 2014, “American policy makers must realize that the contest for East Asia is one of both power and law. ... Acceding to [UNLCOS] and once again exercising direct leadership over the development of its rules and norms is the first and most critical step. ... My sense is that East Asian states, indeed many states around the world, are desperate for active American leadership over the norms and laws that govern legitimate international action.”25 Once again, I agree fundamentally with my colleague.
As a signatory to UNCLOS, the PRC occasionally implies that its interpretations should trump those of the United States, which has yet to ratify the convention that Washing- ton nevertheless employs as a bludgeon against Beijing’s claims that UNCLOS permits limitations by coastal states on foreign military activities in the EEZ. The message is that even though the United States asserts its compliance with UNCLOS, because it has not undertaken to be formally bound by the convention it has no standing to impose its self- regarding interpretations of the regime on those states that have ratified it.
For instance, Zhang Haiwen cites passages from an essay by Scott Borgerson to make the point that there is a “strong political force which is scornful of the Convention in the United States. They like to take advantage of the Convention but do not respect it.”11 Zhang writes, “It is unfair . . . that the United States, which has yet to ratify the Convention, is raising an argument on the interpretation of the Convention.”12 Reacting to what she views as Washington’s selective compliance with UNCLOS, Zhang highlights the following from Borgerson’s piece: “Opponents of the convention [UNCLOS] argue that there is no need to join the treaty [UNCLOS] because, with the world’s hegemonic navy, the United States can treat the parts of the convention it likes as customary international law, following the convention’s guidelines when it suits American interests and pursuing a unilateral course of action when it does not.”13
In these sentiments Zhang is not alone. Chinese observers have framed the dispute about UNCLOS as illustrative of U.S. hegemonic tendencies. “America’s failure to cooperate with the international community on UNCLOS is not an isolated phenomenon,” writes one commentator, “but is one element in its strategy to dominate the world and monopolize the oceans.”14
Ultimately, peaceful resolution of competing maritime claims in the South China Sea will require multilateral negotiations in conformity with international law, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has observed. The brass ring is a binding Code of Conduct among rival claimants, which has proved elusive. Achieving this result will require at least two shifts. The first is a united front among the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), whose summit in Pnomn Penh in July collapsed into acrimony on this question, thanks to Chinese pressure on the Cambodian hosts. Cambodia gets a second chance to get it right this month, when it hosts the final major meeting of its ASEAN chairmanship, which will consider an Indonesian-proposed draft of the code. The second is real movement from China. At stake in the South China Sea is the entire concept of China’s peaceful rise. Recent weeks provide a glimmer of hope in this regard, including Beijing’s endorsement in mid-October of a joint declaration with ASEAN counterparts, which among other provisions commits the parties to peaceful resolution of disputes and the ultimate goal of a code of conduct. The end of China’s protracted leadership transition , which will officially begin during the eighteenth Communist Party Conference on November 8 may allow a mellowing of recent Chinese behavior, giving the incoming government of Xi Jinping an opportunity to rein in the more assertive positions of the Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) on maritime issues.
The Obama administration should encourage all parties to move as promptly as possible toward a binding code of conduct. To be sure, as Tom Wright points out, the United States would have much more diplomatic credibility and influence if it were actually a party to UNCLOS, which would demonstrate that it is willing to play by the same rules that it seeks for others. In this regard, the upcoming lame duck session of Congress would be an ideal time for the Senate to finally ratify UNCLOS.
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