A National Strategy for the South China Sea
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.
More than a decade after the adoption of UNCLOS, the Department of Defense issued an Ocean policy review paper on “the currency and adequacy of U.S. oceans policy, from the strategic standpoint, to support the national defense strategy,” which concluded that U.S. national security interests in the oceans have been protected even though the U.S. is not party to UNCLOS:
U.S. security interests in the oceans have been adequately protected to date by current U.S. ocean policy and implementing strategy. U.S. reliance on arguments that customary international law, as articulated in the non-deep seabed mining provisions of the 1982 law of the Sea Convention, and as supplemented by diplomatic pro- tests and assertion of rights under the Freedom of Navigation program, have served so far to preserve fundamental freedoms of navigation and overflight with acceptable risk, cost and effort.22
This is not to say that the Department of Defense does not support U.S. accession to UNCLOS—it certainly does. However, the Department of Defense does not, and cannot, say that U.S. membership in UNCLOS is absolutely essential to the preservation of navigational rights or that the United States is incapable of protecting those rights unless it accedes to the convention.
The U.S. Navy thrived for more than 180 years from its birth in 1775 through two world wars and developed into a global maritime power, all without membership in UNCLOS. in 1958, the principles of high seas freedom and innocent passage through territorial waters were codified in the first round of law-of-the-sea conventions. Between 1958 and 1982, the Navy continued to fulfill its mission on a global scale. UNCLOS was adopted in 1982, duplicat- ing the navigational provisions of the 1958 conven- tions and “crystallizing” the concepts of transit pas- sage and archipelagic sea-lanes passage. Since 1982 through the end of the Cold War and to the present day, the Navy continues to prosecute its mission as the world’s preeminent naval power.
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.