U.S. ratification of UNCLOS won't help resolve disputes in South China Seas
Ratification of UNCLOS will neither sway China nor guarantee U.S. navigational rights in the South China Seas any more than continued U.S. naval presence through the Freedom of Navigation program.
Proponents of UNCLOS ratification claim that the United States can’t counter China’s claims without ratifying UNCLOS itself. Yet the United States already acts in accordance with international law and custom, whereas China, which has ratified UNCLOS, uses UNCLOS to flaunt the law.
By twisting the UNCLOS into pretzels, China is changing the rules of the game. The liberal order made rules to accommodate the rights and interests of those who decided to participate in it. It turns out China doesn’t much like those rules and is attempting to overturn them – especially those rules that protect freedom of navigation and those that make it difficult for China to pursue its territorial ambitions in Asia. Ratifying UNCLOS isn’t an effective way to combat that effort. These disputes are about power politics and neither China nor the United States will allow them to be settled in court – UNCLOS approved or otherwise.
Rather, the United States must continue doing what it has always done. It should continue to operate naval vessels in international waters – including in other countries’ EEZs – where and when it wants to do so. Operations should run the gamut of peaceful activities – surveillance activities, exercises, and so on.
And Washington must clearly state its intention to continue abiding by centuries-old customary international law pertaining to freedom of the seas including provisions of UNCLOS that are consistent with those practices. In interactions with Chinese counterparts, American diplomats should repeatedly and consistently restate the American position – there should be no question as to where the United States stands.
As it does so, the U.S. should engage China in diplomacy, pointing out – among other matters – that China itself conducts military activity in other countries’ EEZs. We need rules of the road with China to manage competition, not wishful thinking about what U.N. bodies can resolve.
It has always been practice that has determined international law of the oceans. China understands this, and is working to shift law and custom through its own practices. Only by continuing to act on the high seas as it always has can the United States hope to maintain a system of international rules that serves its own interests. Ratifying UNCLOS could very well have the opposite effect.
China likewise has security interests in its extensive South China Sea claims. As noted above, Beijing has reinterpreted international law to assert that it can deny access to its EEZ by foreign military vessels. Successful realization of China’s claims is the first step toward keeping foreign military assets out of those waters. There are three broad reasons why it wishes to do so.
Firstly, sovereignty over the South China Sea would grant China significant, additional strategic depth. At present, from China’s point of view, its coastal cities – key centers of economic activity – are vulnerable to attack from the sea. Keeping foreign warships and military aircraft distant from China’s shores would make it easier for the PLA to defend China’s southern coastline. It would also enable China to more easily project power close to its neighbors’ shores and thus threaten U.S. allies like the Philippines and friends such as Singapore and Indonesia.
Second, China is highly dependent on resource imports from the Middle East. In 2010, 47 percent of China’s oil imports came from the Middle East; 30 percent came from Africa[AJH2] . These imports pass through chokepoints that China doesn’t control, notably the Malacca Strait, but also the Lombok and Sunda Straits in Indonesian waters. Chinese defense officials have referred to this situation as the “Malacca dilemma.”
Chinese sovereignty over the South China Sea would allow it to more easily project power into those straits and, on the flip side, make it more difficult for the United States to do so. This would make it more difficult for the United States to conduct operations in these vital waters against China, while making it easier for China to operate against the United States – and our allies Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. It would also enable the Chinese navy to more easily project power into the Indian Ocean, where American and Indian vessels have long operated unimpeded.
Third, Chinese control over the South China Sea would make it easier for the PLA Navy to project power into the Pacific Ocean. Such control would, in particular, make it more difficult for the United States to monitor Chinese submarines deploying from their underground base at Hainan Island. A Chinese Navy that can more easily sail into the Pacific is one that can more easily threaten U.S. assets and U.S. territories in the region.
Traditionally the freedom of the high seas has included the use of the seas for military maneuvers or exercises, including the use of weapons. This freedom – including the freedom to operate in EEZs – was supposed to be incorporated into UNCLOS . But the language in the provisions pertaining to conduct of military activity in EEZs leaves far too much wriggle room for mischief.
For example, China says that foreign warships must obtain its approval before they can do anything but pass through its exclusive economic zone. A Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman, Senior Col. Geng Yansheng, stated in 2010: “We will, in accordance with the demands of international law, respect the freedom of passage of ships or aircraft from relevant countries which are in compliance with international law” (emphasis added). Chinese officials are trying to limit U.S. naval activity in China’s EEZ’s to “passage” from one destination to another.
This means that the Chinese are claiming that heretofore lawful activities(task-force maneuvering, flight operations, military exercises, weapons testing and firing, surveillance and reconnaissance operations and other intelligence-gathering activities, and military marine data collection or military surveys)conducted in EEZs should now be treated as prejudicial to Chinese rights, including China’s duty to protect the marine environment. If these interpretations gain currency, UNCLOS will prove prejudicial to the rights of maritime nations such as the United States. Law should provide clarity, but UNCLOS is unclear as to what military activities are allowed in a country’s EEZ. China is cynically exploiting the law’s vagaries to further its political goals and its desire to project power.
Herein lies a major danger in U.S. ratification of UNCLOS. In adopting, promoting, and acting on new interpretations of international law, China is attempting to upset the status quo and establish new norms of maritime behavior. By signing up to UNCLOS, the United States might unintentionally signal approval of these errant interpretations.
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The dispute in the South China Sea is even more complex. Drawing on ancient maps and historical accounts, the Chinese and Taiwanese insist that the sea’s two island chains, the Spratlys and the Para- cels, were long occupied by Chinese fisherfolk, and so the entire region belongs to them. The Viet- namese also assert historical ties to the two chains based on long-term fishing activities, while the other littoral states each claim a 200-nautical mile EEZ stretching into the heart of the sea. When com- bined, these various claims produce multiple over- laps, in some instances with three or more states involved—but always including China and Taiwan as claimants. Efforts to devise a formula to resolve the disputes through negotiations sponsored by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASE- AN) have so far met with failure: While China has offered to negotiate one-on-one with individual states but not in a roundtable with all claimants, the other countries—mindful of China’s greater wealth and power—prefer to negotiate en masse.
"The Growing Threat of Maritime Conflict
." Current History
. Vol. 112, No. 750 (January 2013): 26-32. [ More (4 quotes) ]
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America is the dominant hegemonic Power in Asia Pacific and possesses the dominant power projection38 capabilities in the region and seems committed to continue using them in a restrained manner.39 The littoral counties in the region, especially China, however, are developing the ability to deploy forces with the military capacity to threaten U.S. power projections. In particular, China‘s rapidly increasing economic power has caused widespread concern over China‘s ambitions to enhance ―blue water capability‖ for influence beyond its borders. These developments in China are of special concern to the US national interests, especially in the South-China Sea.40 In this regard, the recent statement by the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton41 in the ASEAN Regional Forum caused a lot of diplomatic tensions between the US and China. The said statement referred to the US interests in resolving territorial disputes off China‘s southern coast as ―a leading diplomatic priority,‖ thereby indicating the US intention to intercede in a region.
However, this is not the first time that the US has shown its interest in the maritime affairs in the Asia-pacific region, especially in South China Sea. The 2009 Impeccable incident is reflective of the US intensions to maintain its hegemony through power projections, even by circumventing the marine scientific research (MSR) provisions of the 1982 LOS Convention.
In the light of these observations, the US accession to the LOS Convention will have significant implications for the US interest in the South China Sea. Most notably, the LOS Convention would be applicable to the US completely as it does not allow making reservations at the time of accession. In addition, the US would be obliged to refrain from any acts that would defeat the object and purpose of the convention. Thus, by becoming a party to the Convention, the US would be constrained in the freedom to take inapt actions in the South China Sea without giving due considerations to its possible legal consequences. This may diminish the unchallenged naval power of the US in the Asia-Pacific.
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Each side devises elaborate argumentation to justify a position by reference to terms and passages from UNCLOS, implying a common acquiescence to the primacy of inter- national law generally and to the UNCLOS regime specifically. Neither side challenges the legitimacy of international law in general or UNCLOS in specific. That the two disputants contend in such civil, legalistic discourse might encourage one to conclude that reason has surpassed passion, except that vessels from each state, dispatched by authorities determined to defend a principled position, meet in defiant encounters at sea, jeopardizing maritime harmony, menacing bilateral relations, and endangering the lives of duty-bound sailors. Thus, it provides only modest comfort that conversation about the EEZ is possible, even if it is through dialogue that both sides prefer to resolve the present controversy.
A resolution of the EEZ issue is unlikely to emerge from a discussion of law, because the law is not really the problem. Sino-U.S. relations are strained because of the ways in which the strategic aims of Beijing and Washington collide and chafe against one another during a period of rapid transition of stature and perceived power.
Simply put, the PRC—reflexively anxious about its comparative weakness in the face of far more robust U.S. military power—worries about how the United States and its allies may undermine those assets that the PRC has managed to develop to offset the existing military asymmetry between them. Beijing seems committed to expanding strategic depth by raising the cost to the United States of operating close to the PRC’s shores.
In line with this objective, the PRC evidently resents U.S. intelligence and surveillance activities. It hopes to push foreign forces as far from shore as is possible, especially those with prying eyes capable of gathering information about assets Beijing prefers to keep secret.
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Ratification of UNCLOS will neither sway China nor guarantee U.S. navigational rights in the SCS which are advanced not by membership in a treaty, but by maintaining a strong Navy, conducting persistent naval operations against China’s excessive maritime claims, supporting key U.S. allies, and adhering to long-standing principles of the customary international law of the sea.
The customary international law of the sea— which includes the principles of freedom of the seas, “innocent passage” through territorial waters, and passage rights through international straits and archipelagoes—existed long before UNCLOS was adopted in 1982. The convention merely codified and elaborated upon these widely accepted principles. While not a party to UNCLOS, the United States— unlike China—actually honors the convention’s provisions. The United States demarcates legitimate maritime boundaries, respects the rights of coastal states within their EEZs and territorial seas, and adheres domestically to the regimes regarding the contiguous zone and EEZ.
No evidence suggests that China, or any other state, would respect its obligations under UNCLOS to a greater extent if the United States became a party. Nor is there any evidence that ratification of UNCLOS would enhance U.S. military capability. The Freedom of Navigation program, the primary means of the U.S. confronting China’s exces- sive claims, does not rely on U.S. membership in UNCLOS.
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Regardless, the United States cannot afford to wait to join UNCLOS before bringing a decisive res- olution to the challenges in the SCS. The Senate Foreign relations Committee has taken the convention under consideration on many occasions, including hearings in 1994, 2003, 2004, and 2007. The committee held four hearings in 2012, but then-chairman Senator John Kerry (D–MA) did not attempt to offer the convention for a committee vote due to stiff opposition by the convention’s detractors.
There is no realistic possibility that the United States will ratify UNCLOS in the near term, or perhaps ever. U.S. policymakers should instead concentrate their efforts on developing and implementing a specific strategy to address intractable problems, such as those the United States faces in the SCS.
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Opponents of the United States becoming a party to UNCLOS argue or might argue one or more of the following:
- China’s ability to cite international law (including UNCLOS) in defending its position on whether coastal states have a right to regulate foreign military activities in their EEZs73 shows that UNCLOS does not adequately protect U.S. interests relating to navigational rights in EEZs; the United States should not help lock this inadequate description of navigational rights into permanent international law by becoming a party to the treaty.
- The United States becoming a party to the treaty would do little to help resolve maritime territorial disputes in the SCS and ECS, in part because China’s maritime territorial claims, such as those depicted in the map of the nine-dash line, predate and go well beyond what is allowed under the treaty and appear rooted in arguments that are outside the treaty.
- The United States can adequately support the ASEAN countries and Japan in matters relating to maritime territorial disputes in the SCS and ECS in other ways, without becoming a party to the treaty.
- The United States can continue to defend its positions on navigational rights on the high seas by citing customary international law, by demonstrating those rights with U.S. naval deployments (including those conducted under the FON program), and by having allies and partners defend the U.S. position on the EEZ issue at meetings of UNCLOS parties.
I understand the force of this argument. The U.S. already adheres the key principles in UNCLOS, so joining UNCLOS will allow the U.S. to push back more effectively against China’s aggressive and expansionary activities.
But is there really any evidence that formal accession would change China’s view of the U.S. position on UNCLOS issues? China is already a member of UNCLOS and other countries (like Japan and the Philippines) are also members of UNCLOS. But I don’t think UNCLOS has really bolstered their effectiveness in pushing back against China. Moreover, as Professor Dutton explains, China has a radically different interpretation of its authority to regulate foreign ships and aircraft in its Exclusive Economic Zone under UNCLOS. How will joining UNCLOS help the U.S. change China’s interpretation of UNCLOS?
As a practical matter, UNCLOS does have a way of compelling member states to conform their interpretations: mandatory dispute settlement in the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea or in Annex VII arbitration. But as China and Russia have demonstrated in recent years, these mechanisms are not likely to be a serious constraint, especially on questions that touch sovereignty (which is how China frames most of its activities). I suppose if the U.S. joins UNCLOS, and subjects itself to UNCLOS dispute settlement, that might make a difference. But I don’t think it would be a very large one (after all, Japan, China, and the Philippines are all already subject to UNCLOS dispute settlement, which has accomplished little so far).
The authors argue that while there are good reasons for the Senate to ratify UNCLOS, pushing it to advance U.S. policy in the South China Seas is not one of them as it would result "only in a slight modification to Chinese rhetoric, and no change in Chinese policy."
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The author disputes the idea brough up in recent testimony that the U.S. could improve its bargaining position in negotiating a resolution to the South China Seas dispute by ratifying UNCLOS.
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