Joshua FoustBack to OpinionJoshua Foust

It’s time for the U.S. to ratify the Law of the Sea

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey, left, looks on as Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta speaks at the Forum on the Law of the Sea Convention on Wednesday, May 9, 2012 in Washington. Photo: AP Photo/Evan Vucci

Last week, General Martin Dempsey, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, issued a strong endorsement of the Law of the Sea Convention, or LOTS. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta repeated the endorsement. “This is not even a close call,” Panetta told a high-caliber crowd of foreign policy and business professionals. “Not since we acquired the lands of the American West and Alaska have we had such an opportunity to expand U.S. sovereignty.”

The outline of LOTS seems very straightforward: it establishes, through the U.N., an international framework for managing access to resources on the ocean floor: oil, gas, minerals, and whatever else one can find. One hundred and sixty-one countries, plus the EU, have ratified LOTS, leaving the U.S. as a lone holdout.

U.S. intransigence on LOTS has serious national security implications. At a high level, ratifying LOTS will secure U.S. economic power and sovereignty without requiring a ghastly military adventure somewhere. As my colleague Andrew Holland points out, LOTS would give the U.S. access to arbitration over access to natural resources in the Arctic – discussions the U.S. cannot participate in because they are happening under the aegis of LOTS. Ratifying the treaty would give the U.S. the legitimacy to manage its own arctic resources.

From the military’s perspective, LOTS is a winner too. By ratifying navigational rights (including passage through foreign waters) and affirming the sovereign immunity of our warships and other public vessels, LOTS gives us an international framework for responding to excessive interference by states seeking to illegally restrict access and movement. The current framework provides common law agreements, which are backed up by the imposing presence of U.S. warships; LOTS would give the U.S. an inherent right to the sea without requiring a heavy military presence.

In other words, LOTS facilitates a way for the U.S. to assert global leadership and navigate an increasingly complex international security environment without relying on its military. It secures America without bankrupting America.

For the most part, LOTS enjoys bipartisan support (here is a video of Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) endorsing it). Most major military leaders have also endorsed it as a strengthening of U.S. sovereignty and power – including the above-referenced Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. So what’s the hold up?

Despite the bipartisan support for LOTS, there is a small group that rejects the idea of international agreements. A few pundits complain that it will restrict the U.S., when the reality is that LOTS will extend U.S. sovereignty beyond the current maritime boundaries. Other groups like the Heritage Foundation,,that normally promote the expansion of business opportunities, are uncharacteristically couching their opposition to the treaty as opposition to “special interests” – namely, that LOTS might actually benefit businesses.

It is strange to read a conservative critique that an international treaty that has the backing of big business. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which is hardly a bastion of socialism, supports LOTS because it will benefit and advance U.S. business interests – a point that General Dempsey has underscored in recent remarks

Staying out of LOSC restricts American foreign policy as well. China and the Philippines are in an escalating contest for control in the South China Sea. While the many territorial disputes in the South China Sea are a bit complex to recount in this post, it all boils down to a basic question of international law: how do states determine access to economically important regions that are not part of their immediate territory?

LOTS provides a framework for arbitrating disputes about access to territory and resources. Even though the U.S. is not a signatory, it is trying to use LOTS to constrain China’s advancement throughout the western Pacific. But because the U.S. isn’t a part of the treaty, there is only so much the government can do to enforce this. After all, when the U.S. refuses to ratify a treaty, it cannot credibly demand other countries adhere to it.

Considering the DOD’s “pivot” to Asia, and the growing importance of U.S. policy in Asia, it’s difficult to understand why the U.S. would reject LOTS. At a forum on the Law of the Sea last week, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Martin Dempsey said, “Joining the Law of the Sea Convention will strengthen our strategic position in Asia… We have a vested interest in mitigating any conflict in the Asia-Pacific before it occurs.”

It seems bizarre to deny America’s one of the few non-military foreign policy instruments at its disposal. Ratifying LOTS would open up tremendous economic opportunity for American businesses, protect and advance American security, and establish a framework for resolving territorial disputes (in a non-violent way). It’s supported by business leaders and the military brass. It is past time to ratify this vital component of America’s future.

Joshua Foust is a fellow at the American Security Project, where he focuses on asymmetric operations and national security strategy, as well as a columnist for The Atlantic

 

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