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.
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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).
First, while the United States has a strong interest in peaceful resolution of competing territorial claims in the South China Sea, it is not itself a claimant, and thus UNCLOS would provide no additional tools for the United States to use in addressing disputes in the South China Sea. While U.S. ratification of UNCLOS would allow U.S. nationals to serve on arbitration panels, such representatives are expected to exercise independent reasoning and do not take instructions from member governments.
If anything, the presence of an American on the panel would have played to the suspicions of hardliners in China who view international legal regimes as a vehicle for advancing U.S. interests. If this sounds farfetched, consider that the Chinese ambassador to ASEAN recently accused Washington of “staying behind the arbitration case as the manipulator, and doing whatever it can to ensure that the Philippines wins the case.”