Bilateral treaties are not a sufficient substitute for UNCLOS regime in settling Arctic disputes
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The Western Gap agreement has clear implications for the Arctic, where the United States shares a potential extended continental shelf with both Russia and Canada. UNCLOS opponents suggest that questions regarding international legal title to the U.S. potential extended continental shelf in the Arctic will be resolved conclusively when the United States enters bilateral agreements with Russian and Canada respectively.156 As simple and therefore attractive as this position may be, it begs several questions.
Under what legal authority would the Arctic neighbors have the right to divide and claim for themselves an area lying, at least in theory, beyond their respective national jurisdictions? Even assuming a legitimate legal basis to claim their extended continental shelves and delimit them bilaterally, what basis would the states have for desiring to and concluding their agreements outside the UNCLOS framework, including ignoring Article 82 royalty payments? Finally, even if Russia and Canada— both UNCLOS member states—choose to comply with UNCLOS on their respective sides of delimited shelves, might they object to the United States not doing so on its side, and, if so, would they pursue their objections? And how might the outer limits of the U.S. extended continental shelf in the Arctic be determined given the geographic differences from the Western Gap situation where there were only two geographically opposite states with no third state or area interests involved?
The simple answer is that only by acceding to the convention can the United States obtain its full continental shelf rights in the Arctic.
Bilateral arrangements between states over ECS claims are not a viable alternative to the existing UNCLOS regime. The comprehensive international UNCLOS regime was proposed in the first place as a way of reducing the transaction costs of formulating all of these bilateral treaties. Additionally, they would have dubious legal validity, especially in regions like the Arctic where all other nations besides the U.S. have already ratified the treaty.
Tension between Russia and other Arctic nations will remain high as they continue to compete for Arctic territory. Maintaining UNCLOS as a viable legal framework for settling Arctic territorial claims should help avert potential confrontations between Russia and other UNCLOS members.