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United States accession to UNCLOS is critical to ensure sovereignty in the Arctic. UNCLOS provides specific guidance for dealing with maritime borders disputes and the outer continental shelf claims through an international tribunal and arbitration.221 Currently as a non-signatory to UNCLOS, the U.S. is not able to avail itself of these provisions and can only engage bi-laterally as needed.
The consequences of this are becoming increasingly clear in relationships with Canada and Russia, with whom the U.S has active maritime border disputes. The U.S. is in dispute with the Russian Federation over the Bering Strait and with Canada over the waters of the Northwest Passage (NWP). The NWP crosses over North America, in an area that Canada claims are internal waters not subject to the conventions of “innocent passage” as established under customary international law and UNCLOS. On the contrary, the U.S. regards the waters of the NWP as an international strait for navigational purposes, through which ships can pass without interference by the coastal state (Canada).222 The opening of the Northwest Passage would have a global impact on marine transportation. It would cut shipping routes between ports in Asia and U.S. east coast by nearly 5,000 miles.223 Due to a lack of standing under the UCLOS treaty, the U.S. is arguing from a position of weakness with respect to the statuses of the Northwest Passage, the Northern Sea Route, and the Bering Strait and the subsequent threat to Freedom of Navigation.