Evidence: Recently Added
Additionally, we need to reinforce the global institutions that the Law of the Sea was designed to create and support. This entails underwriting with our power and example peaceful dispute resolution based on international law and international institutions. Among these, the United States must ratify the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). As Peter Dutton testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee in 2014, “American policy makers must realize that the contest for East Asia is one of both power and law. ... Acceding to [UNLCOS] and once again exercising direct leadership over the development of its rules and norms is the first and most critical step. ... My sense is that East Asian states, indeed many states around the world, are desperate for active American leadership over the norms and laws that govern legitimate international action.”25 Once again, I agree fundamentally with my colleague.
The United States should ratify UNCLOS because doing so would further support the rules-and-norms- based international system that Washington is rightly trying to foster—in part as a means to ensure the following: (1) that neither force, nor even the threat of force, will be employed to resolve island and maritime claims disputes in a dynamic but increasingly-tense region; and (2) that such destabilizing approaches will not be encouraged anywhere else. Ratifying UNCLOS would also eliminate a perennial source of deflective criticism by China and understandable concern on the part of U.S. allies and partners. While the U.S. stance with regard to international maritime law is obviously far more sophisticated than this—including nuanced positions regarding the far-reaching applicability of customary international law— ratifying UNCLOS would nevertheless eliminate a perception that Washington is advocating “Do as I say, not as I do.” The application of maritime law in practice is shaped over time, and China is already benefitting from U.S. vulnerability in this area—vulnerability caused by not joining 166 other nations in becoming a party to UNCLOS.
I can attest from personal experience to the extent to which China has cultivated a new generation of sharp, persistent maritime legal specialists who are active in the international arena. I believe that their concerted efforts can make a difference over time, a difference that would undermine the governance of the global maritime commons to our collective detriment.
As bad as things are already, they could get worse—particularly if American attention and resolve are in question. In attempting to prevent China from using military force to resolve island and maritime claims disputes in the South China Sea, the United States will increasingly face Beijing’s three-pronged trident designed precisely to preserve such a possibility. Maritime militia and Coast Guard forces will be forward deployed, possibly enveloping disputed features as part of a “Cabbage Strategy”13 that dares the U.S. military to use force against non-military personnel. Such forces would be supported by a deterrent backstop that includes both China’s navy and its “anti-navy” of land-based anti-access/area denial (A2/AD), or “counter-intervention,” forces, collectively deploying the world’s largest arsenal of ballistic and cruise missiles. In the region, only Vietnam also has a maritime militia, and the U.S. Coast Guard is not positioned to oppose China’s. Meanwhile, China’s Coast Guard is already larger than those of all its neighbors combined, and still growing rapidly.14
The United States will at some point fully adhere to the Convention. Every oceans industry interest in the United States supports the Convention, from the oil majors to the environmentalists. Indeed, the only opposition is ideologically based, rather than interest based, and even then is senseless un- less rooted in inaccuracies about the Convention. In the meantime, the United States accepts the normative provisions of the Convention as cus- tomary international law, and the United States Navy has one of the best records in the world in careful compliance.
These important provisions for navigational freedom are of the utmost importance in protecting global trade, one of the core mechanisms for global economic growth, and for lessening the risks of conflict involving efforts to assert jurisdiction over warships and other vessels entitled to sovereign im- munity. For “zone-locked” states, the absence of these navigational freedoms would mean losing access to the oceans as though the state were land- locked. Indeed, without the clear legal recognition of these fundaments of navigational freedom, UNCLOS would not have been possible. Sadly, however, the international community must be diligent in combating the challenges to navigational freedom that still exist. These include:
- Aberrant and vague “area” claims such as the old “Libyan Line of Death,” the Chilean “Mar Presencial,” China’s “nine-dashed-line” and North Korea’s 50-mile security zone claim;
- Excessive straight baseline claims;
- Excessive claims concerning innocent passage in the territorial sea; particularly claims concerning consent or notification for warships; claims which have never been accepted as part of oceans law and which have been jointly rebutted by the United States and Russia in the Jackson Hole Statement of September 23, 1989;
- llegal claims asserting ship construction or operation standards for transit through the territorial sea or the economic zone which have not previously been adopted through the IMO mechanism; and
- Claims limiting full high seas navigational freedoms in the exclusive economic zone.
For the most part aberrant and vague area claims and claims beyond permissible limits for the territorial sea and economic zone seem to be slowly re- ceding as the Convention takes greater hold each and every year. The more concerning problems for the future likely relate to the “character” of each of these zonal areas in UNCLOS. We must not permit gradual encroachments to roll back the core UNCLOS compromise of extended coastal state resource rights in return for full navigational freedom in the EEZ and straits transit rights through, over, and under straits used for international navigation.
The rule of law matters. Law serves to provide clear expectations as to juris- dictional boundaries and national rights and obligations so necessary for co- operative relations, economic life, and more broadly, human creativity. Thus, we need to know the breadth of the territorial sea, who manages coastal stocks of fish, the rules for straits transit and a myriad of other rules to func- tion cooperatively in the oceans. If some states claim three nautical miles for the territorial sea and others two hundred nautical miles, we simply do not know the basic rules. But of even greater importance, the rule of law serves as a check on power. An oceans space driven by out-of-control national claims and a “might makes right” credo can neither serve community com- mon interests nor restrain conflict. The Law of the Sea Convention is a re- markable achievement in the rule of law—providing both stability and a check on power.
In the medium term, focusing on managing North Korea at the expense of the United States’ interests in the South China Sea could destabilize the U.S.–Chinese relationship. Such a course would suggest a dangerously narrow definition of U.S. priorities, encouraging China to more assertively press its position on other regional issues, such as its relationship with Taiwan or the territorial disputes in the East China Sea.
But it is in the long term that U.S. acquiescence in the South China Sea would be the most damaging. If the United States ceases to defend freedom of navigation, others will not make up for its absence. U.S. allies such Australia and Japan are committed to international law, but they do not have their own freedom of navigation programs, and they cannot maintain a regular military presence in the South China Sea. Similarly, if the Trump administration does not seek to rally Southeast Asian countries to support the waterway’s openness, those countries will have little reason to stand up to China on their own. States in the region, including U.S. partners, will quickly presume that Washington is pulling back from Asia and will increasingly view China as the region’s most dependable power, despite its misbehavior at sea. The result would be a tilt in Asia’s balance of power toward Beijing.
If the United States waits months to get tough in the South China Sea, it will do so from a weaker legal, military, and diplomatic position than it holds today. Making matters worse, a sudden shift after a long delay could cause whiplash in Beijing, sending the bilateral relationship into a crisis.
That is why the United States must step up now. Just as international law does not enforce itself, access to the oceans cannot be taken for granted—and it should certainly not be traded away.
Exactly why the South China Sea has fallen off the administration’s agenda is not clear. But it is possible that U.S. officials have decided to lift the pressure on China’s maritime outposts because they believe that doing so could help secure Beijing’s help in managing North Korea. There are other signs that suggest that the administration may be trying to gain China’s favor. When Secretary of State Rex Tillerson went to Beijing in March, for example, the White House authorized him to describe the bilateral relationship in language favored by Chinese officials—a puzzling accommodation in light of the importance that Beijing attaches to such rhetoric. The next month, Trump called on South Korea to pay for a missile defense system whose deployment China has opposed. The Trump administration has also released no details about when it will announce arms sales to Taiwan, and Trump has indicated that he will seek Beijing’s permission before speaking to Taiwan’s president again. (Trump spoke on the phone with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen in December, in a break from longstanding U.S. policy that angered China.)
If this is the administration’s logic, it is deeply flawed. China is indeed capable of pressuring North Korea, since Beijing supports much of that country’s economy. But China has long prioritized the stability of the Korean Peninsula over its denuclearization, and those preferences will not change. More likely is that Beijing will pressure North Korea just enough to demonstrate that it is pitching in, avoiding the kinds of dramatic steps that would push Pyongyang toward denuclearization at the risk of the regime’s collapse. China will not ignore its interests in the Korean Peninsula simply because Washington gives up its own interests in the South China Sea.
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
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.