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.
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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.
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Unfortunately, as UNCLOS nears its 40th anniversary, the United States has yet to ratify the treaty despite strong urging from the U.S. Defense and State Departments, as well as from the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In its “Arctic Roadmap,” the U.S. Navy actively supports accession to UNCLOS because it provides “effective governance: freedom of navigation, treaty vs. customary law, environmental laws, and extended continental shelf claims.”33 Joining UNCLOS would give the U.S. government a clear framework in which it could more effectively confront growing difficulties pertaining to freedom of navigation in the Arctic region. By not ratifying the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, the United States is at a considerable economic disadvantage as the other Arctic coastal states submit their claims. The United States maintains the world’s largest EEZ and has 360 major commercial ports. With potential claims of up to 600 miles of possible resource-rich continental shelf territory in the Arctic, remaining outside the UNCLOS only erodes the position of the United States in the region.
These difficulties have been made explicitly clear in recent reports from the Department of Defense and the U.S. Navy. The Department of Defense has noted that its “lack of surface capabilities able to operate in the marginal ice zone and pack ice will increasingly affect accomplishment of this mission area [sea control] over the mid- to far-term.”34 Moreover, the U.S. Navy “acknowledges that while the Arctic is not unfamiliar for the Navy, expanded capabilities and capacity may be required for the Navy to increase its engagement in this region.”35 These challenges are likely to increase moving forward unless further action is taken. As discussed below in further detail, the fact that the United States has yet to ratify UNCLOS compounds these issues.
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The United States has also taken steps to tie its continental shelf to the Arctic Seacap in an effort to claim some of the re- sources beneath it.192 The most recent U.S. expedition may have found evidence to extend the continental shelf north of Alaska 100 miles from where it was originally thought to be.193 This could provide a challenge to Russia, Denmark and even Canada’s claims to the territory in the Arctic Seacap. However, as a non-party to the Convention, the United States has limited recourse for its claim.194 As a party, the United States may (and likely would) submit evidence of its expansive continental shelf to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf and conclusively establish the outer limits of its territorial sea in the Arctic.195 Should another state try to infringe upon these limits, the United States would have evidence supported by international law to protect itself. The states most likely to pose a threat to the United States in the Arctic—Denmark, Canada and Russia—are all parties to the Convention and therefore must adhere to the findings of the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf. Absent ratification of the Convention, the United States could have taken Russia’s approach. In the unlikely event that terra nullius is found to be an acceptable method for claiming territory on the seas, this action, nevertheless, would have been futile since Russia was the first to assert a claim over the Arctic.
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UNCLOS holds specific value for the Arctic security environment as it lays out a set of rules on how to divide disputed territory and resolve possible tensions. It also represents the only path for Arctic coastal states to submit scientific claims to extend their outer continental shelf, which provides important clarity for future economic development. While the five Arctic coastal states are limited by their exclusive economic zone of 200 nautical miles from their coasts, the convention allows them to extend their economic zone if they can prove that the Arctic seafloor’s underwater ridges are a geological extension of the country’s own continental shelf. Within 10 years of ratifying the UNCLOS, countries must submit evidence to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, the governing body created to deliberate on these submissions, to make their case for an extended continental shelf.
Other Benefits. We should also join the Convention now to steer its implementation. The Convention’s institutions are up and running, and we – the country with the most to gain or lose on law of the sea issues – are sitting on the sidelines. As I mentioned, the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf has received submissions from over 40 countries without the participation of a U.S. commissioner. Recommendations made in that body could create precedents, positive and negative, on the future outer limit of the U.S. shelf. We need to be on the inside to protect and advance our interests. Moreover, in fora outside the Convention, the provisions of the Convention are also being actively applied. Only as a party can we exert the level of influence that reflects our status as the world’s foremost maritime power.
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The United States has basic and enduring national interests in the oceans. These diverse interests—security, economic, scientific, dispute settlement, environmental, and leadership—are best protected through a comprehensive, widely accepted international agreement that governs the varying (and sometimes competing) uses of the sea. Although the United States has lived outside the Convention for 30 years, climate change in the Arctic provides the current Administration with a new and urgent incentive to re-engage the Senate and urge that body to provide its advice and consent to U.S. accession to the treaty at the earliest opportunity. As a nation with both coastal and maritime interests, the United States would benefit immensely from becoming a party to UNCLOS—accession will restore U.S. oceans leadership, protect U.S. ocean interests and enhance U.S. foreign policy objectives, not only in the Arctic, but globally.
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Ratification of the Convention is an urgent matter. Although a state has up to ten years after it has ratified the Convention to map and submit proposed limits of its continental shelf to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, by that time it may be too late.196 Global climate change has caused parts of the Arctic Seacap to begin melting, making it navigable for the first time.197 While this is promising for underwater mining industries, these environmental effects have attracted a great deal of attention and the international community is cooperating to reverse them.198 Instead of engaging in fruitless political battles with its strategic adversaries, the United States should move quickly to ratify the Convention and focus its energy on extracting the resources beneath the Arctic as quickly as possible.199 Ratification “would allow full implementation of the rights afforded by the convention, [allowing member nations] to protect coastal and ocean resources.”200
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In May 2013, five Asian nations—including China—were granted ob- server status in the Arctic Council, and China has stated it does not intend to be a “wallflower” in the forum.33 Beijing has expressed an interest in developing new shipping routes through the Arctic that will connect China with its largest export market—the European Union. To that end, in August 2013, a Chinese merchant vessel loaded with heavy equipment and steel set sail from Dalian en route to Rotterdam via the Arctic’s Northern Sea Route (NSR).34 China has also expressed an interest in developing Arc- tic resources. In March 2010, Rear Admiral Yin Zhou of the People’s Liberation Army Navy stated at the Eleventh Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference that “under . . . UNCLOS, the Arctic does not belong to any particular nation and is rather the property of all the world’s people” and that “China must play an indispensable role in Arctic exploration as it has one-fifth of the world’s population.”35 Officials from the State Oceanic Administration have similarly indicated that China is a “near Arctic state” and that the Arctic is an “inherited wealth for all humankind.”36 As a party to UNCLOS, the United States could claim an ECS in the Arctic and forestall any encroachment of U.S. ocean resources by China or any other nation.
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In light of a global climate crisis and the escalating battle over the valuable resources below the North Pole, Congress should make ratification of UNCLOS one of its top priorities. Until the United States is a treaty member, it cannot enjoy voting privileges on the influential ISA (on which it would be granted a permanent seat) nor submit claims to the CLCS to gain legal rights to the resources in the North Pole‘s seabed. The concerns that influenced President Reagan not to sign the treaty in 1982 have largely disappeared, and the remaining concerns are easily refuted. U.S. ratification of UNCLOS makes sense not just for economic, national security, and environmental reasons, but also to enhance the diplomatic standing of the United States. Accession to UNCLOS now would be a powerful and meaningful gesture on behalf of the United States, symbolizing a recommitment to global cooperation.
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The Arctic nations are preparing submissions for the extended shelves; Russia’s is currently under review. Under the terms of the convention, the American zone would be the largest in the world— more than 3.3 million square miles, an area greater than the lower 48 states combined.74 In addition to protection of shelf claims, the convention is good for the United States because it sets pollution standards and requires signatories to protect the marine environment. The United States has not submitted a claim because it has not ratified the Convention.75
Ratification is also important for U.S. long-term presence in the region. In the absence of shared law, countries often make unreasonable and irres- ponsible claims in the maritime environment—the Arctic will be no different.76 Without binding law, the United States gambles on long-term credibility to enforce international law, freely navigate the oceans, and protect the business ventures that rely on uniform laws.