WASHINGTON — The U.S. is facing growing competition in the Arctic and other areas of the seas, not just from China and Russia but from its own self.
One of the biggest hurdles facing those advocating for an increased Arctic presence by Washington, and enhanced options in other waters, is the failure of the U.S. to ratify the Law of the Sea treaty. The pact — formally called the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) — gives nations proprietary rights to minerals and other assets 200 miles from the shore line, among other things.
Only four nations have failed to ratify the protocol: the U.S., North Korea, Iran and Libya. Pentagon officials have long lamented the failure of Congress to ratify the treaty, saying the lapse weakens the military’s hand in dealing with challenges to freedom of passage on the open seas.
Now that failure to ratify has produced a law of unintended consequence because of melting ice as well as China’s rise as a naval power. Those and other elements may reopen Pentagon voices on the issue, some Pentagon officials said in interviews last week.
The Navy in particular is taking a new look at the chances for treaty ratification because of its guarantee of navigational freedom, the officials said. China has ignored a ruling by an international court regarding militarization of the islands in the South China Sea, which the Pentagon fears are designed to limit freedom of navigation in that region.
Both the current and former heads of the U.S. Coast Guard publicly and voraciously have argued the U.S. must ratify the treaty — especially since melting ice has opened the Arctic and Antarctica regions to nations previously absent from those mineral-rich and strategic areas.
“If you want to compete in the 21st century, you have to compete from a platform of strength,” Admiral Paul Zunkunft, then the Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, said in remarks to the 2018 Sea-Air-Space exposition this spring. “We are trying to assert sovereignty with reports and papers.”
Zunkunft said then that the Arctic Ocean region contains an estimated one-third of all natural gas reserves, 13 percent of the oil reserves and a treasure chest of a plethora of critical minerals. He said that while the U.S. can make claims for resources on the extended continental shelf from Alaska, it is a hollow claim since Congress failed to rarity the Law of the Sea protocol.
The current Coast Guard commander, Admiral Karl Schultz, told reporters this summer that ratification of the Law of the Sea treaty by the U.S. would help since its protocols would help octet assets on the continental shelf and elsewhere — even more critical as melting ice opens access others. “That would clarify things,” he said.
Independent analysts spar over whether the U.S. would benefit or be harmed by formally ratifying the treaty.
Many opponents say the treaty would undermine U.S. sovereignty and impose stricter environmental standards. Some supporters say ratification will provide a stronger legal foundation for accessing resources on the extended continental shelf and give the U.S. more credibility in world issues regarding the oceans.
High-profile individuals also have taken positions.
“If we’re truly concerned about China’s actions in the South China Sea … the Senate should help strengthen our case by approving the Law of the Sea convention, as our military leaders have urged,” then-President Barack Obama said in a 2016 commencement speech to the U.S. Air Force Academy.
But others, including former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, have warned that ratification of the Law of the Sea Treaty might create a precedent as nations move operations into outer space.