Committed to the Law of the Sea: In most ways, except for one
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In my personal opinion, the United States should join the Convention as a State Party. Legally, accession would enable the nation to enjoy the legal benefits that the Convention affords a party as a matter of conventional law, with more durable certainty. Politically, US accession would further demonstrate to other nations the US commitment to the rules-based and balanced approach of rights and responsibilities that the Convention reflects. More important than what I personally believe, the executive branch of the US Government supports and has long supported US accession to the Convention, in particular when discussing the ongoing situation in the waters of East Asia. In May of this year, President Obama acknowledged this challenge for the United States in his speech before the graduating cadets at the US Military Academy.19 He stated: “You see, American influence is always stronger when we lead by example ... We can’t try to resolve problems in the South China Sea when we have refused to make sure that the Law of the Sea Convention is rati ed by our United States Senate, despite the fact that our top military leaders say the treaty advances our national security.”
In short, the noticeable absence of the United States in the roll-call of mem- ber-states to the Law of the Sea Convention continues to handicap US efforts in the international community to promote the rules-based approach reflected in the Convention, particularly in the ways it can aid in resolving maritime-related disputes in the South China Sea. Yet, as a US citizen, I fully respect the US Senate’s constitutional role in the treaty-making process.
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US accession to the Law of the Sea Convention in the immediate future might not be possible. Yet US presidents of both political parties have taken the maximum possible action within their legal authority to respect the law of the sea, by declaring that many of the rules contained in the Convention reflect customary international law, and by acting accordingly. Moreover, US military commanders and forces are instructed to adhere to customary international law, including that re ected in the Law of the Sea Convention. On a more practical level, this author always has a copy of the Convention on his office desk and routinely relies upon many of the rules of law contained therein as a reflection of customary international law when advising his military commander-clients and their staffs on law of the sea matters.
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To further demonstrate its support for the Convention’s legal regime, a succession of US presidents over the past three decades have directed a multi-agency US Freedom of Navigation Program to preserve the nation’s rights, freedoms, and lawful uses of the sea and airspace throughout the world. Of note, this US interest in freedom of navigation has included maintaining that freedom in the waters of East Asia, as demonstrated by a combination of public statements, diplomatic correspondence, and operational activities. Through the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, the US Department of State has diplomatically protested and the US Department of Defense has operationally challenged excessive maritime claims asserted by nations in East Asia that are inconsistent with the Convention. These US efforts to preserve the legal regime reflected in the Convention are transparently documented in the US Department of Defense’s Annual Freedom of Navigation Reports and its Maritime Claims Reference Manual, both of which are available to the public on the Internet.
At the same time, the United States has demonstrated support for the Convention’s legal regime through its actions as a coastal state, to include respecting all of the rights, freedom, and lawful uses of the sea and airspace exercised by other states. For example, when vessels and aircraft from foreign militaries, such as Russia20 and China,21 conduct military activities in and over the US exclusive economic zone, the United States has fully respected this “other internationally lawful use of the sea” by foreign militaries reflected in the Convention