Should the US Ratify the UN Sea Treaty Because of China?

The White House’s recent campaign to ratify the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea is beginning to focus on China. Administration figures, backed by the Pentagon, maintain that the pact, also known as the Law of the Sea Treaty, or LOST, will give us one more tool to deal with Beijing.

The argument was outlined by Leon Panetta on the 9th of this month as he listed five reasons for ratification. The last is that the treaty “would strengthen our position” in “the strategically vital arc extending from the Western Pacific and East Asia into the Indian Ocean region and South Asia.” In this area, “numerous countries”—the defense secretary did not utter the word “China” in this context—“sit astride critical trade and supply routes and propose restrictions on access for military vessels.” And then he asked, “How can we argue that other nations must abide by international rules, when we haven’t officially accepted those rules ourselves?”

The Christian Science Monitor, less diplomatically, put it this way while arguing for ratification: “It might help bring China into honoring the international norms of the sea.”

There may be many reasons to ratify the convention, but China is not one of them. There are two points to consider. First, although Beijing ratified the pact in June 1996, it continues to issue maps claiming the entire South China Sea. That claim is, among other things, incompatible with the treaty’s rules. It’s no wonder Beijing notified the UN in 2006 that it would not accept international arbitration of its sovereignty claims.

China’s expansive claims highlight a fundamental point: agreements are virtually useless when dealing with hard-line states. Since the death of Mao, the People’s Republic of China has almost never hesitated to sign and ratify pacts, conventions, and treaties—and at the same time violate them.

It is, for instance, a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty but remains a notorious nuclear proliferator, and it is a member of the World Trade Organization yet brazenly disregards its trade obligations. And UN sanctions? China openly violates those too, even though it is one of the five permanent members of the Security Council.

The theory that China can be brought into the international community by enmeshing it in a global rules-based framework has, unfortunately, not been validated by recent history. If anything, Beijing has, from the inside, made global institutions weaker as it pursues interests that are inimical to a liberal, international system.

Second, the United States does not need the treaty to enforce freedom of navigation on the high seas. In fact, the US Navy was doing that before there was a UN Convention—and even before there was a UN. Indeed, if there has been a consistent theme of American diplomacy since 1775, when America’s navy was first established, it has been to proclaim and to help maintain the right of safe passage through international waters. And today, as a result, supertankers and rust buckets alike ply global trade routes without armed escorts, regardless of the flag they fly, because the US Navy and its allies ensure the world’s sea lanes remain open. A treaty with China won’t change that.

“By moving off the sidelines, by sitting at the table of nations that have acceded to this treaty, we can defend our interests, we can lead the discussions, we will be able to influence those treaty bodies that develop and interpret the Law of the Sea,” Panetta said in his May 9th remarks. True, but the rules themselves are not the issue when it comes to China. When it comes to China, it’s the enforcement that counts.

And enforcement of Beijing’s obligations by this administration and the preceding one has been notoriously lax. What is the point of America participating in the making of rules when no White House will demand that the Chinese adhere to them?

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