China is certainly building a robust navy. Last year, its first aircraft carrier was sighted conducting sea trials, and Beijing has reportedly again upped its military spending by double digits, in this case 11.2 percent for 2012.
As the United States “pivots” to the Asia-Pacific region, U.S. defense planners are increasingly focused on China’s maritime build-up. Recent Pentagon budgeting decisions – such as expanding space-based and cyber capabilities, and making improvements to the Navy’s attack submarines – are designed to counter China’s growing military capabilities. However, an even more effective tool remains unused, and for no good reason: ratifying the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea.
The treaty went into effect in 1994 and has more than 160 countries signed on, including Canada, Australia and all of Europe. The costs of not ratifying it are growing by the day. Until the U.S. Congress ratifies the treaty, we lack the international legitimacy to prevent Beijing from bullying Asia and bending economic and security laws in its favor.
The strange thing is that the treaty actually has widespread, bi-partisan support – a rarity in Washington these days. Both Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush pushed for its approval. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved it, including through a unanimous decision to recommend the treaty in March 2004. The Joint Chiefs of Staff, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, chiefs of naval operations, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce are for it. When business interests line up with national security objectives, it signals how important and pressing the issue is.
And ratifying the treaty saves the United States boatloads of cash. Approving it would allow us to reduce our military expenditures yet maintain naval strength at a time when our nation’s debt keeps climbing. One example is over piracy. The total economic costs of Somali piracy in 2011 were approximately $7 billion by some estimates. Signing the treaty would allow the U.S. to better coordinate anti-piracy and anti-terrorism efforts alongside the international community. Instead of policing the world’s waters by ourselves, we could share the burden.
Signing the treaty, then, reduces costs and danger for our already overextended navy.
What’s more, approving the treaty is similar to the best kind of business decision: it reduces expenses and puts money in our pocket. It provides for Exclusive Economic Zones, or exclusive privileges to manage the natural resources near our coast. No country stands to benefit more from these zones than the United States. As Citizens for Global Solutions points out: “The American zone is larger than that of any country in the world. The size of [America’s] zone is…bigger than the lower 48 states combined.” With increased access to the ocean’s resources – including mineral-rich waters near our shores – we can boost the economy, increase domestic energy production and bring back more jobs.
Another benefit of the treaty is the boost it would give to U.S. international legitimacy. China regularly violates the economic rights of other Asia-Pacific countries by controlling ocean territories reserved for our allies in the region, such as Japan and South Korea. By joining the Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the U.S. would have the legal authority to enforce the treaty – preventing China, which has already ratified UNCLOS, from illegally stripping its neighbors’ natural resources. As it stands now, we lack the legal ability to prevent China from gaming the system. If we ratify the treaty, we gain a seat at the negotiating table and leverage against China’s bullying tactics.
The arguments against the treaty are grounded in ideology, not evidence. Critics argue that under the treaty, the U.S. will lose access to vital seabed mineral resources and be subjected to foreign and bureaucratic control, threatening our national security. Yet neither is the case. Indeed, quite the contrary – no country has more to gain from the treaty than the U.S. We would receive access not only to huge tracts of the ocean by our shores, but exclusive regions of the Arctic seabed. What’s more, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Director of Naval Intelligence have reaffirmed that, if anything, it enhances U.S. maritime and security interests.
The reality is that despite the scaremongering and ideological inflexibility by some in Washington, UNCLOS doesn’t compromise our global influence; rather, it enhances our security capabilities and economic opportunities. As we focus on the Asia-Pacific, we need all the tools we can get to balance China’s maneuvering.
During my time on active duty, there were numerous incidents with China involving U.S. naval aircraft and ships operating in the South China Sea. This treaty would reinforce the U.S. right to conduct military operations in international seas. Moreover, it gives us a tool that can immediately minimize the possibility of a major crisis in the region.
Not all international diplomacy efforts can be solved by adding more ships to the water. The law is on our side; it’s about time we stopped allowing America to be handcuffed on the international stage.
Capt. (Ret.) Gail Harris is a former U.S. naval officer, and was the highest-ranking African American female in the United States Navy upon her retirement in December 2001. She was also the first female and African American to lead the Intelligence Department for Fleet Air Reconnaissance Squadron in Rota,Spain – the largest US Navy aviation squadron.