UNCLOS protects freedom of navigation rights but China and Iran are using U.S. non-party status to modify these rights to their advantage
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UNCLOS also guarantees the right to operate and conduct exercises in international waters beyond the territorial sea. Prior to the convention, many coastal states were insisting on the right to exercise complete sovereignty out to as far as 200 miles or more from their land territory. While the convention’s provisions establish the right of coastal states to claim a 200-nm exclusive economic zone (EEZ), they may only exercise sovereign rights over economic activities, such as fishing, the exploration for and production of oil and gas from under the seabed, and the construction of artificial islands. Under the convention, coastal states may not restrict freedom of navigation within the EEZ, including military training exercises, law enforcement activities, and overflight.
These provisions are of great benefit to our national security and global mobility interests. In addition to the global reach of the U.S. Navy and Air Force, Coast Guard units patrol the Persian Gulf, the Caribbean Sea, the eastern Pacific Ocean, and other vital maritime areas. There is a disturbing movement among some coastal states to attempt to transform their EEZs into the equivalent of a territorial sea, in which they may limit critical navigational freedoms. For example, the U.S. Navy is concerned about apparent government attempts in China and Iran to assert excessive control over foreign operations within the exclusive economic zone. The United States must not sit on the sidelines while the international community is working out the nuances of how UNCLOS is to be interpreted and applied.
As the pre-eminent global maritime power, the U.S. has significant interests in the global effect of the Convention’s rules and their interpretation with many issues that of greater concern to us than to most other countries (for example, preserving freedom of navigation rights). Our adversaries view this as a weakness they can exploit and are shaping the course of the convention in ways adverse to U.S. interests while the U.S. remains on the sidelines, unable to participate in the discussion as a non-party.