Freedom of Navigation program is not a long-term viable solution to address excessive claims
The United States can assert its navigational rights at any point on the globe, but it cannot be assured of a local superiority of forces simultaneously at every location of potential maritime dispute. Moreover, obvious practicality compels restraint—against both allies and potential adversaries—over maritime disputes. Even the peaceful and non-confrontational Freedom of Navigation (FON) program may present diplomatic costs and pose risks inherent in physical challenges,
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This is just a sampling of excessive maritime claims and their sequels, but it represents the financial and diplomatic costs, as well of the risks, associated with the FON program. The case became compelling that such costs and risks would be substantially less under a specific, binding treaty.55 Two noted experts on the law of the sea, 1. Ashley Roach and Robert W. Smith, presented the position of the State Department in 1994: “Unilateral U.S. demonstrations of resolve—especially operational assertions—are sometimes viewed as antagonistic. They risk the possibility of military confrontation and of political costs that may be deemed unacceptable, with prejudice to other US. interests, including worldwide leadership in ocean affairs and support for use of cooperative, international solutions to mutual problems?“
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In fact, many of the nations making claims that the U.S. considered excessive were asserting that the Convention was a legal contract, the rights and benefits of which were not necessarily available to non-parties—such as the United States. The Continual counter-assertion that these rights and benefits were already embodied in customary international law was appearing more and more difficult to sustain. In testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the summer of 1994, the chairman of the Department of Defense Task Force on the Law of the Sea Convention, John McNeill, pointed to the likelihood of “increasingly egregious excessive claims” by many coastal states as a critically important reason to seek U.S. accession to the Convention.57 The danger of continuing to rely on the FON program was summed up by Rear Admiral William Schachte: “The political costs and military risks of the Freedom of Navigation Program may well increase in the changing world order.”58 Conversely, accession to the Convention, by the United States would, it was hoped, convince states making excessive claims to retract them and, perhaps more importantly, keep in check their natural desire to extend sovereignty to offshore areas, when it would be inimical to navigation and overflight rights.”
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Myth: The United States can rely on use or threat of force to protect its navigational interests fully.
Reality: The United States has utilized diplomatic and operational challenges to resist the excessive maritime claims of other countries that interfere with U.S. navigational rights. But these operations entail a certain degree of risk, as well as resources. Being a party to the Convention would significantly enhance our efforts to roll back these claims by, among other things, putting the United States in a stronger position to assert our rights.
Customary international law tends to be hard to enforce and maintain. For exam- ple, eighteen states continue to claim territorial sea in excess of twelve nautical miles. Thirteen states claim, historic bays inconsistent with international law. More than sixty countries delimit straight baselines along portions of their coast, many of which are drawn inconsistently with international law. Also, more than twenty states attempt to over-regulate their exclusive economic zones (EEZ), contrary to the express provisions of the Convention.
Since 1979, the United States has formally contested excessive coastal state claims, both operationally and diplomatically, through the Freedom of Navigation Program. The program is based entirely on the navigation and overflight provisions of the Convention. While this program is designed to breathe life into the terms of the Convention, Parties to the Convention are likewise capable of defining or refin- ing provisions of the Convention. By remaining outside the Convention, the United States’ only way of confronting attempts by Parties to the Convention to interpret or refine Convention provisions would be by the exercise of our naval and air forces in accordance with the existing terms of the Convention. However, in presenting Ad- miral Center’s paper, Commander Rosen will discuss that this will be harder to do in the years to come as we downsize. Also, as a nation committed to the rule of law, the use of military force to resolve legal conflicts between Parties and non-Parties to the Convention should not be the preferred method of challenging excessive coast- al state claims.
I would note that, in the case of the ‘‘Black Sea Bumping Incident,’’ the United States and Soviet Union approached the legal issues involved as would Parties to the Treaty in relying on the Convention’s rules on innocent passage to amicably re- solve the issues raised by the incident.
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Some columnists and think tank analysts have argued that U.S. accession to the Convention is unnecessary because excessive maritime claims can be addressed by invoking customary international law and with “operational assertions’’ by the U.S. military. But such an approach is less certain, more risky, and more costly than taking advantage of the Convention. Customary law is by nature subject to varying interpretations and change over time. Operational assertions—sending military ship and aircraft into contested areas—involve risk to naval personnel as well as political costs. Such assertions should be conducted aggressively where needed, but avoided where possible.
Suggestions that somehow our maritime interests can be asserted solely through robust naval power are not relevant to the real world. The overwhelming majority of ocean disputes do not involve enemies or issues that warrant military action. As Admiral Patrick Walsh testified at our first hearing in 2007Statement of Admiral Patrick M. Walsh: Accession to the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention and Ratification of the 1994 Agreement Amending Part XI of the Law of the Sea Convention ." Testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, September 27, 2007. [ More (4 quotes) ]: "Many of the partners that we have in the Global War on Terror who have put life, limb, and national treasure on the line are some of the same ones where we have disagreements on what they view as their economic zone or their environmental laws. It does not seem to me to be wise to now conduct Freedom of Navigation operations against those very partners that are in our headquarters trying to pursue a more difficult challenge ahead of us, a Global War on Terror." Even a mythical 1,000 ship U.S. Navy could not patrol every strait, protect every economic interest, or assert every navigational right. Attempting to do so would be prohibitively expensive and destructively confrontational. "
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A fourth reason arguing for the importance of the Convention to our national security equation is the growing political and military costs of the U.S. Freedom of Navigation Program in the face of new excessive maritime claims by an increasing number of states. This program, initiated in 1979 by the Carter Administration, and continued by the Reagan, Bush, and Clinton Administrations, combines diplomatic action and operational assertion of our navigational rights to discourage state claims inconsistent with13 international law as reflected in the Convention. On the diplomatic front, the U.S. State Department protests maritime claims that are inconsistent with international law. Since the inception of this program, well over 100 such protests have been filed by the United14 States. Over the same time period, U.S. military ships and aircraft have exercised navigational rights and freedoms in all oceans against excessive claims of more than 5015 countries with numerous operational assertions every year. Clearly, the scope of this program alone makes it highly desirable for the United States to decrease the number of contentious ocean issues. Moreover, the political costs and military risks of such unilat- eral actions have been high in the past and can only increase in a changing world order.
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If appropriately resourced by the combatant commanders, the Freedom of Navigation program is effective, but it is not a panacea. The United States can assert its navigational rights at any point on the globe, but it cannot be assured of a local superiority of forces simultaneously at every location of potential maritime dispute. Moreover, obvious practicality compels restraint—against both allies and potential adversaries—over maritime disputes. Even the peaceful and non-confrontational FON program may present diplomatic costs and pose risks inherent in physical challenges,148 as was displayed by the Black Sea bumping incident in February 1988. In 1996, the National Intelligence Council concluded that in some cases the costs, disadvantages, or risks of physically challenging excessive claims might be greater than the benefits.149 Of course, coastal states understand this calculus and will try to manipulate it to their advantage since they have an incentive to compel the inter- national community to acquiesce in their excessive maritime claims.
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Those who point to the freedom with which the U.S. Navy, in particular, has roamed the seas, and to the success of the Freedom of Navigation Program, miss many of the nuances of the way in which the Navy uses the seas. The United States takes extraordi- nary measures to ply the oceans responsibly. There have only been a small number of incidents of violence involving U.S. forces because we are very selective about when and where we choose to challenge excessive maritime claims.59 Naval commanders are ￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼given extensive guidance, primarily in The Commander's Handbook on the Law of ￼Naval Operations60, regarding their rights and duties, and they are enjoined to respect the rights of coastal states to ocean areas under their purview. Additionally, they are charged specifically to provide advance notice and reporting if they are entering into ￼￼￼￼ areas in which an international incident is likely.61 Where a Freedom of Navigation challenge of an illegal maritime claim is deemed appropriate, this challenge is not del- egated to the local commander, but must be thoroughly reviewed by higher authority before any Freedom of Navigation operation can take place.62 These factors have the practical effect of placing real-world limitations on U.S. operations—limits that would not exist if illegal claims were rolled back to conform with the Law of the Sea Convention.63
Regardless of the outcome of contention on, over, or under the oceans, as the world's most influential maritime power and leader of the de facto maritime coalition, oceanic conflict is ultimately unhelpful to the United States. The deaths of Libyan pilots as the result of United States protest of excessive maritime claims should be as upsetting to the United States as the death of an American airman in 1992 when the aircraft he was flying in was shot at by a Peruvian fighter aircraft 175 miles from the coast of Peru.64 Both incidents reflect a breakdown of the rule of law for the oceans and are ultimately bad for the United States.
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One method the United States has adopted to deal with state claims inconsistent with international law as reflected in the Convention is the Freedom of Navigation (FON) Program. Initiated in 1979 and continued by every administration since then, this program combines diplomatic action and operational assertion of our navigation rights to discourage state claims inconsistent with international law as reflected in the Convention. But the political, economic, and military costs of this program are not trivial, and for a Navy stretched thin to meet its urgent operational commitments, every freedom of naviga- tion challenge comes with an opportunity cost somewhere else—to say nothing of the risks to the Sailors on those ships. This was put forcefully by then-CNO Vern Clark in a letter to the Senate Armed Services Committee:
For the many years we’ve remained outside the Convention, we’ve asked our young men and women to conduct operations, sometimes at great risk, to challenge the exces- sive maritime claims of other states. Joining the Law of the Sea Convention will let our people know that, when they’re operating in defense of this nation, far from our shores, they have the backing and the authority of widely recognized law to look to, rather than depending only upon the threat or use of force.
The tense showdown between the United States People’s Republic of China over the collision between a Chinese fighter and a Navy EP-3 aircraft—an event that occurred in China’s exclusive economic zone—is but one indication of the risks described by Admiral Clark. sufficient for US to secure its naval rights The tense showdown between the United States and the
The author argues that U.S. Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) in East Asia are increasingly provocative and prone to accidents and they could lead to "a long, drawn-out crisis that, even if it stops short of war, would prove highly disruptive to U.S. efforts to cooperate with China on areas of great import."
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The author argues that U.S. shows of force in the South China Seas through freedom of navigation operations are counterproductive and risk turning our allies against us. Instead the author argues a diplomatic approach would be more proportional and "seems to be sufficient for other nations, including maritime powers whose rights the U.S. claims to be protecting."
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