Kathryn Hansen/NASA

World News


The U.S. and the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea

A new race has begun: the race for what’s left. In a modern era defined by climate change and dwindling natural resources, the oceans remain a global common for energy and food resources, and a crucial conduit for commerce. The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), transmitted by the United States in 1994, provides necessary international legal rules and regulations for the seas, most importantly concerning resource division and territorial control. Yet, despite its substantial resource claims, the United States still has yet to ratify UNCLOS.

It is high time for the U.S. to act and ratify the UN Convention. This step will safeguard American claims for territorial energy resources, strengthen the convention’s authority, and allow U.S. challenges to false claims by other countries. Although the U.S. declined to ratify UNCLOS in 1994, President Reagan’s 1983 Ocean Policy Statement had announced the intention of the U.S. to generally follow the convention’s rules. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee had twice voted in support of joining the Convention in 2004 and 2007.

Ratification will provide the U.S. with an internationally-recognized legal framework to secure substantial natural resources. Under UNCLOS, exclusive economic zones (EEZ) for coastal nations grant exclusive authority over all resources 200 nautical miles from shore. Coastal states with broad continental margins are also allowed to establish an EEZ exceeding 200 miles, pending review. The U.S. is believed to possess over 291,000 square miles of extended continental shelf. Rapidly receding Arctic ice from climate change has increased opportunities for the U.S. as an Arctic state to tap into newly available resources. From Alaska’s coastline, the continental shelf extends over 600 miles into the Arctic, and is estimated to hold 29.96 billion barrels of oil and 72 billion barrels of natural gas. Without ratifying UNCLOS, the U.S. has no legal foundation to claim and attain these resources. Other Arctic nations have already begun to submit claims for the Arctic region.

Ratifying UNCLOS will strengthen the convention’s authority and reinforce the U.S. as a major maritime power. UNCLOS has been signed by 164 UN members. The U.S. absence actively weakens its diplomatic integrity and commitment to international institutions, as well as the authority of the Convention. This emboldens other nations to blatantly disregard UNCLOS. In 2016, an UNCLOS tribunal ruled in favor of the Philippines over China regarding the Spratly Islands in the region. China effectively ignored the ruling and continues to pressure countries in the South China Sea to surrender their economic maritime rights. This could have dire future implications for respecting America’s maritime resource claims.

Without ratification, the U.S. lacks the capacity to legally challenge contentious territorial claims or proposed amendment changes to UNCLOS. These include China’s 9-dash line claims in the South China Sea, and more significantly Russia’s claim to the Arctic undersea Lomonosov Ridge (which would vastly increase Russia’s extended continental shelf and potentially overlap that of the U.S.). Having an official position within UNCLOS would allow the U.S. to challenge any conflicting claims from a strong legal foundation.

Critics argue that ratifying UNCLOS is unnecessary for the U.S. to access and exploit its maritime resources. Although the U.S. follows UNCLOS regulations concerning its EEZ, these claims technically have no legal protection. Ratifying UNCLOS will provide legal justification and protection for U.S. maritime interests.

The point that ratification of UNCLOS will be financially disadvantageous for the U.S., due to revenue sharing requirements in Article 82 from outer continental shelf profits, is also without merit. No payments are required in the first 5 years, and only 1 percent of site proceeds each year afterwards (increasing by 1 percent each year to a maximum of 7 percent). These costs are minor, and a worthwhile investment in strengthening UNCLOS to protect U.S. interests in the long run.

The U.S. already adheres to UNCLOS; without ratification, it risks losing the legal protection for traditional maritime claims, and opportunities for new claims. The rapid onset of climate change, and growing scarcity of traditional energy resources, has made securing new resources more critical than ever. To protect its sovereignty and security, the U.S. must ratify UNCLOS.