Issue in Focus
Jul 15 2016
For the past several years, the Chinese government has aggressively laid claim to important waterways and small island chains in the South China Sea that are contested by many countries in the region. This week, an international arbitration court in The Hague ruled against many of the Chinese claims, rebuking their antagonistic actions, in a suit brought by the Philippines through the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (LOST). The ruling was not a surprise to anyone, as China has been brazenly violating international maritime norms for years. China’s response was also predictable: Beijing immediately dismissed the court’s ruling as biased, stating that they will not abide by it.
In response, many have called on the United States to ratify LOST, which U.S. policymakers have repeatedly rejected since its creation in the early 1980s. But this week’s ruling and its aftermath prove that the prudent course is exactly the opposite: the United States has no need to ratify the LOST treaty and should avoid becoming a member of its organization.
Proponents of treaty ratification believe that it will improve the United States’ ability to engage in and peacefully resolve maritime disputes by granting the U.S. a “seat at the table” in the international bureaucracy that the agreement creates. But does the United States currently lack the legitimacy and authority necessary to influence the peaceful resolution of maritime disputes?
Of course not. The reality is that our Navy and Air Force’s “command of the commons” – the sea and air lanes through which foreign nations commercially interact with one another – gives the United States a very prominent seat at the proverbial table. We have achieved this influence through the sacrifice of American soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen over the past two centuries, not by a piece of paper that attempts to empower international bureaucrats.
Moreover, China’s casual repudiation of the court’s ruling shows what kind of dilemmas would await the United States if we were to ratify the LOST treaty. China is a party to LOST, but everyone knew that the Chinese government never had any intention of following a ruling that was not consistent with their territorial interests. Why would the United States want to ratify a treaty whose signatories completely ignore its rules? Doing so would only make the United States appear weak in the face of such flagrant violations, and it could potentially put us in the position of playing enforcer even when it is against our interests.
The LOST treaty is also an expansive document that would bind the United States to provisions that were written by international bureaucrats and that would affect domestic U.S. law, including policies that establish environmental and energy standards, govern the adjudication and exercise of mineral rights, and call for international economic redistribution. Adopting this far-reaching treaty would do great damage to U.S. sovereignty.
Around the world, we are witnessing a rejection of the centralized, bureaucratic institutions developed in the 20th Century that have never had the capacity to represent and address the varying interests of free and independent peoples. The Law of the Sea Convention is one of those institutions, and this week’s events prove once again that the United States is better served by pursuing our economic and security interests around the world without ceding sovereignty to an unaccountable international body.