U.S. has already committed to UNCLOS framework in Arctic by signing 2008 Illulissat Declaration but will remain outside of conversation until party to UNCLOS
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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
Even though U.S. has not ratified UNCLOS, it still has committed itself to abiding by its principles in two ways: through numerous policy statements and laws drafted in accordance with UNCLOS and committing the U.S. to abiding by it; and due to the fact that the Law of the Sea has become customary international law.
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.