U.S. is losing emerging Arctic race by not being party to UNCLOS
By remaining outside of UNCLOS, the U.S. is ceding its leadership role in the region in a number of ways. First, and most importantly for the U.S. strategic and economic interests, by remaining outside of the treaty the U.S. is not able to submit its claims for the extended continental shelf in the Arctic to the CLCS, preventing U.S. industries from claiming mineral rights. Secondly, existing Arctic governance regimes are based on and rely on UNCLOS and the U.S. non-party status prevents it from contributing as a full partner, weakening the overall Arctic governance regime. Finally, U.S. efforts to develop a strategy for the Arctic are constrained by the continual question of its non-party status and legitimacy as a leader.
[ Page 175 ]
The Arctic Ocean is currently at the center of the outer continental shelf discus- sion. In fact, the Arctic is becoming the test bench for international politics. It is an ocean where oil and gas, minerals, fisheries, sea lanes, military interests, and gover- nance over ocean spaces meet in conflict among the five “frontline” states (USA, Canada, Denmark/Greenland, Norway, and Russia) while other neighboring entities like Iceland, the EU, Japan, and China express their Arctic interests as well.
All these happen at the same time when Arctic temperatures are rising twice as fast as in the rest of the world20 and climate change becomes incalculable. The warming temperatures break up polar ice, raise sea levels, erode coastlines at a remarkable speed,21 and potentially cause international conflicts as the Arctic becomes accessible at least during the summer. The USA, unlike the other Arctic states, is falling behind in this contest with little or no icebreaking and naval capacities in the region. Moreover, since the USA has not ratified the Law of the Sea Convention, it is neither in a position to claim outer continental shelf areas nor has a say in the International Seabed Authority ISA which will be responsible for deep-sea mining in central parts of the Arctic. Denmark, on the other hand, is working on its “Arctic strategy” with an anticipated claim of outer continental shelves north of Greenland to include the pole, which will be formally presented to the CLCS before 2014.
While the other Arctic powers are racing to carve up the region, the United States has remained largely on the sidelines. The U.S. Senate has not ratified the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the leading international treaty on maritime rights, even though President George W. Bush, environmental nongovernmental organizations, the U.S. Navy and U.S. Coast Guard service chiefs, and leading voices in the private sector support the convention. As a result, the United States cannot formally assert any rights to the untold resources off Alaska's northern coast beyond its exclusive economic zone -- such zones extend for only 200 nautical miles from each Arctic state's shore -- nor can it join the UN commission that adjudicates such claims. Worse, Washington has forfeited its ability to assert sovereignty in the Arctic by allowing its icebreaker fleet to atrophy. The United States today funds a navy as large as the next 17 in the world combined, yet it has just one seaworthy oceangoing icebreaker -- a vessel that was built more than a decade ago and that is not optimally configured for Arctic missions. Russia, by comparison, has a fleet of 18 icebreakers. And even China operates one icebreaker, despite its lack of Arctic waters. Through its own neglect, the world's sole superpower -- a country that borders the Bering Strait and possesses over 1,000 miles of Arctic coastline -- has been left out in the cold.
For all the changing conditions of the Arctic Ocean, one thing has not changed: the basic rules of international law relating to oceans. These laws apply to the Arctic in the same way that they apply to all the oceans. The international legal oceanic framework remains the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The United States has not yet become party to it, despite the fact that we recognize its basic provisions as reflecting customary international law and follow them as a matter of long-standing policy.
Our status as a non-party to the UNCLOS, however, puts the United States at a disadvantage in a number of fundamental respects, most of which lie beyond the scope of this discussion. But our efforts to address the changing Arctic region bring at least two of those disadvantages into sharp focus.
First, we are the only Arctic nation that is not party to the UNCLOS. As our neighbors debate new ways to collaborate on Arctic Ocean issues, they necessarily will rely on the UNCLOS as the touchstone for their efforts. The United States will continue to take part in these initiatives, but our non-party status deprives us of the full range of influence we would otherwise enjoy in these discussions.
Second, the four other nations that border the central Arctic Ocean—Canada, Denmark/Greenland, Norway, and Russia—are advancing their claims to the continental shelf in the Arctic beyond 200 nautical miles from their coastal baselines. The UNCLOS not only establishes the criteria for claiming such areas of continental shelf, it also sets up a process to secure legal certainty and international recognition of the outer limits of those shelves. The United States also believes that it will be able to claim a significant portion of the Arctic Ocean seafloor as part of our continental shelf. But as a non-party to the UNCLOS, we place ourselves at a serious disadvantage in obtaining that legal certainty and international recognition.
Given that the United States has not ratified UNCLOS, U.S. nationals may not serve as members of the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf. It is not clear whether the United States, as a non-state party, can even make a legally recognized submission to the commission to assert its claim and fully protect its proprietary rights and energy interests. In contrast, Russia, which may be entitled to almost half of the Artic region’s area and coastline, has already made its submission for vastly extending its continental margin, including a claim to the Lomonosov Ridge, an undersea feature spanning the Arctic from Russia to Canada. Russia and Canada are the two countries with which the United States has potentially overlapping extended continental shelf claims.
This maritime boundary dispute is no small matter. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that the Arctic holds 22 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil and gas, amounting to more than 412 billion barrels of oil equivalent. Legal certainty in maritime delimitation is critically important for Arctic states and their respective energy companies. On June 8, 2012, Rex Tillerson, as chairman and CEO of ExxonMobil, wrote to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to vociferously urge U.S. accession to UNCLOS:
“Perhaps the best example of the need for certainty in an area with great unexplored potential involves the Arctic Ocean…Several countries, including the United States, are provided with a claim to extended exploitation rights under the application of UNCLOS in the Arctic. The legal basis of claims is an important element to the stability of property rights.”
In the absence of treaty ratification, Tillerson noted that the United States suffers from the dual disadvantage of having both a cloud over the international status of U.S. claims and a weakened ability to challenge other states’ conflicting claims.
[ Page 19 ]
Imperative impetus for this change in the US ocean policy comes from the ongoing climate change in the Arctic region and its potential implications for the US. Indeed, receding ice in the Arctic provides new opportunities to the US to secure its energy security and to gain economically by extracting hitherto inaccessible offshore Arctic resources and utilizing navigable Northwest Arctic Passage for commercial shipping. However, its legal status as a non-Party to the LOS Convention has kept the US ―hobbled on the Arctic‘s geopolitical sidelines‖ and acts as a stumbling block in its active participation in important international policymaking bodies- CLCS and ISBA. The US has no say in the CLCS commission with the authority to validate its national claims for extended continental shelf, which may adverserly affect the US Arctic interests. Further, non-participation in the ISBA authority may also marginalise the US interests in the deep seabed mining in the Area, beyond national jurisdiction. All these factors have point out the need for a change in the US ocean policy in recent time. These imperatives emphasize on the need to accede to the LOS Convention to advance US economic and strategic interests in the contemporary world.
Another strategy that could boost U.S. influence in the Arctic, buffer looming conflicts, and help clarify seabed claims would be for the Senate to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
The Law of the Sea took effect in 1994 and established rules for how the oceans and ocean resources are used and shared. That includes determining how countries can claim parts of the seabed. The U.S. initially objected over a section that limited deep seabed mining, but that section was amended to alleviate some of those concerns. Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama all urged the Senate to ratify it, but that still has not happened.
Ratification would give the U.S. a stronger international legal position in contested waters. It also would enable the U.S. to claim more than 386,000 square miles – an area twice the size of California – of Arctic seabed along its extended continental shelf and fend off any other country’s overlapping claims to that area.
Without ratification, the U.S. will be forced to rely on customary international law to pursue any maritime claims, which weakens its international legal position in contested waters, including the Arctic and the South China Sea.
[ Page 14 ]
Corollary to the non-accession to the LOS convention, the US can not access the institutions and mechanisms operating under the legal regime of the Convention. In the present scenario, therefore, the United States lacks legal basis to submit claims for enlarging its continental shelf beyond 200 NM to the CLCS Commission until it ratifies the LOS Convention. This in turn will hamper the US prospects of accessing the Arctic resources. In the meantime, however, state parties to the Convention - Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, and Russia - are all currently competing for valuable sea-bed overlapping rights in the Arctic and collecting evidences to make claim for an extended continental shelf (ECS) in the Arctic region. While the CLCS Commission may begin evaluating their respective ECS claims after receiving submissions at any time, the US continues to have its hands tied for its inability to use the CLCS procedure until it ratifies the LOS Convention. In sum, until the US becomes a party to the LOS Convention, it cannot access the CLCS Commission to gain legal rights to the Arctic seabed resources, nor can it enjoy voting privileges on the influential ISA Authority in influencing decision-making in deep-seabed mining in the ―Area‖ beyond the national jurisdiction.
[ Page 40 ]
The legal regime applicable in the Arctic is the customary international law as reflected in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). While the United States has not ratified UNCLOS, it considers the convention’s navigation and jurisdiction provisions to be binding international law. The convention advances and protects the national security, environmental, and economic interests of all nations, including the United States, codifying the navigational rights and freedoms that are critical to American military and commercial vessels. It also secures economic rights to offshore natural resources.26 Article 76 of the convention allows nations to claim jurisdiction past their exclusive economic zones on the basis of undersea features that are considered extensions of the continental shelf, if a structure is geologically similar to a nation’s continental landmass.27 In May 2008 five of the Arctic nations adopted the Illulissat Declaration, which acknowledges that “the Law of the Sea is the relevant legal framework in the Arctic” and that there is “no need to develop a new comprehensive international legal regime to govern the Arctic,” committing the signatories to an “orderly settlement of any possible overlapping claims.”28
Currently there are overlapping, unresolved maritime boundary claims between the United States and Canada, Canada and Denmark, Denmark and Norway, and Norway and Russia. At this time, none of these disputed boundary claims pose a threat to global stability. While the United States and Canada disagree on the location of the maritime boundary in and northward of the Beaufort Sea, the United States considers Canada a close ally, and the dispute does not jeopardize this relationship.29 Unfortunately, the United States is the only Arctic nation that has not joined UNCLOS, despite support from President Barack Obama and the Bush and Clinton administrations. Because the Illulissat Declaration recognizes the law of the sea as the framework for deciding issues of Arctic territoriality, the United States will likely find itself at a disadvantage when critical Arctic conversations occur.30
[ Page 307-308 ]
In terms of capabilities, the US is like most Arctic neighbours in not being adequately equipped to optimally operate year-round in an arctic maritime environment. After the events of September 11, 2001 funding for polar research was dramatically cut, and the US was left with only three Arctic-capable icebreakers.61 The disparity between the growing importance of the Arctic and the lack of capability to adequately patrol it has been recognised by the US government.62 The issue evidently has not reached a point yet where significant resources will be diverted to the Arctic at the expense of other priorities. Thus like most Arctic states at the moment, with the possible exception of Russia and to a lesser degree Canada, the US chooses to substitute rhetoric over substance.
From a security perspective, this may in fact be viewed in a positive light. While the US and other Arctic states recognise that access to the region may dramatically increase in coming years, the current reality is that Arctic sea ice will dramatically limit marine traffic and resource exploitation for the immediate future. The longer the sea ice serves as a deterrent for any possible ‘scramble for the Arctic’, the more time is available for stakeholders to use dialogue to diffuse stress points and find compromise positions on contentious issues such as boundary disputes. One such area of friction that the US could eliminate is its non-ratification of UNCLOS. Ratifying the Convention would send a signal to all Arctic and maritime stakeholders that the US is not simply a hegemonic state that abides by only its own rules, but a member of the global community that values and upholds international law.
"The Implications of Ice Melt on Arctic Security
." Defence Studies
. Vol. 11, No. 2 (June 2011): 297-322. [ More (6 quotes) ]
[ Page 7 ]
Meanwhile, U.S. influence in the region is waning, which will only exacerbate America’s ability to secure its interests in the region. Within the Arctic Council, the primary venue for promoting cooperation in the region, the United States remains the only member that has not ratified LOSC. The Arctic Council is a consensus-based forum which often debates and makes decisions regarding issues already governed by previous agreements and international law, such as the natural resource exploitation protections provided by LOSC. Considering agreements within existing frameworks such as LOSC can make it easier to level the playing field and hold discussions with countries – except the United States. Given its failure to date to ratify LOSC and subsequent lack of international legitimacy and protections provided under the International Seabed Authority for its natural resource claims, the United States remains excluded from important mechanisms for promoting economic cooperation and respect for rightful natural resource claims by all Arctic countries.
Competition is heating up as Arctic opens, with Russia pursuing an aggressive approach with its icebreaker fleets and territorial claims. The author argues that the U.S. needs to rethink its Arctic policy to be able to effectively challenge Russia, including by ratifying the Law of the Sea convention.
[ More ]
Rich with energy resources, minerals and strategic positioning, the warming Arctic is ripe for territorial disputes, USCG Adm. Zukunft warns in a recent speech.
[ More ]
The Coast Guard commandant warned that his service’s presence in the Arctic may not be enough to ward off Chinese and Russian encroachment unless the U.S. signs the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea – and that even if the U.S. signed the treaty now, it might be too little, too late.
[ More ]
The international scramble over development, energy and climate change in the Arctic — highlighted by President Obama’s trip to the Alaska’s far north this week — is prompting fresh debate over whether American influence in the region may be limited by the fact that the U.S. is the only nation in the fight to have never ratified the Law of the Sea treaty.
[ More ]
Countries are scrambling to stake claim to untapped resources, previously frozen in the Arctic. But with a lack of basic infrastructure and funding commitments, critics say the U.S. trails other countries in preparations for the increased activity in the north.
[ More ]