A Seat at the Table: Arguments intensify for U.S. to join U.N. Law of the Sea Convention
The author surveys the increasing number of industries that are making the case for the U.S. to sign on to the Law of the Sea treaty.
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As it stands in the seabed resource market, there are approximately 12 mining claims involving 14 countries under the International Seabed Authority, an intergovernmental body established by the Law of the Sea Convention to have oversight of mineral-related activities in the international seabed. Lockheed Martin for years has had claims to explore and extract rare earth elements, which produce valuable metals used the world over in flat-screen televisions, electric hybrid batteries, tank armor, night-vision goggles and every mobile communications device.
“When you see an international, huge company like Lockheed who has got these claims, who has for years been trying to get access to them, that now may end up going to Lockheed Martin U.K. to get a site and operate through their U.K. operating unit, you have to ask why are American companies having to go to foreign governments to access deep seabed minerals when we as a country desperately need [this business]?”Pike said.
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At issue, in light of China’s emergence as an economic power, technology leader and a nation with a defined oceans strategy, and the activity of Russia and others in the Arctic region, are serious concerns that the United States is falling behind by not securing its sovereign rights to the vast resources of its continental shelf beyond 200 miles from shore — and to explore for more around the world — matters that encompass economic losses as well as national security threats.
Proponents, largely within industry, are anxious to see the United States accede to the Convention. In doing so, the country gains the legal authority to sponsor U.S. companies eager to secure rights to oil and gas reserves, and to leverage investments upwards of $2 billion for mining deep seabeds for valuable metals and rare earth elements. More than 40 countries have begun the process of securing their own continental shelf rights, according to State Depart- ment data.
“Chinese, Indian and Russian companies are exploring deep seabeds for rare earth elements and valuable metals, but the United States cannot sponsor our companies to do the same,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a videotaped statement last December to the Pew Business Roundtable. “Joining the Convention will level the playing field for American companies so they have the same rights and opportunities as their competitors.”
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Supporters of the Convention do not disagree that China’s ongoing assertiveness to territory on and beneath the South China Sea is cause for concern, if not a challenge to international norms regarding freedom of the seas, said Caitlyn Antrim, executive director of the Rule of Law Committee for the Oceans, a nonpartisan educational group whose purpose is to inform public discourse regarding U.S. interests in accession to the Convention.
Antrim noted, however, that the United States could better help the situation by acceding to the Law of the Sea Convention, whereby it would have more influence in supporting the coastal states in that region.
An area of 650,000 square miles with a sea floor believed to be rich in deposits of oil and gas, and host to the world’s second busiest sea lanes, the South China Sea is an example of “creeping jurisdiction,” said Antrim, which is represented, in the case of China, by an attempt to increase its control and extend its authority at the expense of its neighbors in Southeast Asia, as well as the United States, Japan and South Korea.
“The Law of the Sea is our lever,” she told Seapower. “We can’t go in there and continually force our way. We need to have a legal regime so that everything works smoothly. All of the other countries support the Law of the Sea, and we get to add to that strength, but it’s a little difficult when we aren’t a party to it.”
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In economic terms, Pike stressed that advances in technology have dramatically impacted the impor- tance of acceding to the Convention, particularly in terms of the nation’s economic security. Furthermore, he believes the treaty under consideration today is perceived far differently than it was when amended in 1994, just as the Internet was being introduced to the world.
“Now, we’ve got 95 percent of all of our Internet traffic, whether it’s orders for widgets, whether it’s science or military, all of this information travels on undersea cables, and we basically have no protection over those,” he said, illustrating why telecommunications giants like AT&T and Verizon, as well as the North American Submarine Cable Association, are among vocal advocates on Capitol Hill pushing for ratification. “These organizations strongly support the treaty because it affords us unfettered ability to lay and maintain these undersea cables, but undersea cables were sort of an afterthought in 1982.