Tag: south china sea

Law of the Sea Treaty: A Tool to Combat Iran, China, and Russia?

Every few years, the Law of the Sea Treaty rears its head as a one-size-fits-all solution to a host of current maritime problems. This time, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Join Chiefs of Staff, are urging the Senate to ratify the treaty. The officials claim it will act as a tool to deal with aggressive actions by Iran, China, and Russia. But as I have long argued, no matter the current rationale for the treaty, it represents a bad deal for the United States.

Panetta and Dempsey rolled out three hot issues to make their case:

  • Iran is threatening the world economy in the Strait of Hormuz? The Law of the Sea Treaty (LOST) will help solve this.
  • China is threatening the Philippines in the South China Sea? LOST is a crucial tool to prevent war.
  • Russia is claiming land in the Arctic region to extract natural resources? LOST will put the screws to Moscow.

These international controversies will be magically resolved if only the Senate ratifies the convention.

If this sounds too good to be true, it is. It is not clear the treaty would do much at all to alleviate these flashpoints. Especially since the two most important potential antagonists, China and Russia, already have ratified LOST. And it is certainly not the best option policy-wise for the United States with each issue: Iran’s bluster in the Strait of Hormuz may prove its weakness. U.S. policy in the South China Sea suffers from a far more serious flaw: encouraging free-riding by allied states. Russia’s move into the Arctic has nothing to do with Washington’s absence from LOST.

The treaty itself, not substantially altered since 1994, is still plagued by the same problems that have halted its ratification for decades. Primarily, it will cede decisionmaking on seabed and maritime issues to a large, complex, unwieldy bureaucracy that will be funded heavily by—wait for it—the Untied States.

On national security, the U.S. Navy does not need such a treaty to operate freely. Its power relative to all other navies is the ultimate guarantee. Serious maritime challengers do not exist today. Russia’s navy is a rusted relic; China has yet to develop capabilities that come close to matching ours. Moreover, it is doubtful that the United States needs to defend countries such as the Philippines when flashpoints over islands in the region affect no vital American interests.

The average American knows very little about this treaty, and rightly so. It is an unnecessarily complicated and entangling concoction that accomplishes little that the longstanding body of customary international law on the high-seas or the dynamics of markets do not account for. My conclusion in testimony before the Senate Committee on Armed Services in 2004 still holds true:

All in all, the LOST remains captive to its collectivist and redistributionist origins. It is a bad agreement, one that cannot be fixed without abandoning its philosophical presupposition that the seabed is the common heritage of the world’s politicians and their agents, the Authority and Enterprise. The issue is not just abstract philosophical principle, but very real American interests, including national security. For these reasons, the Senate should reject the treaty.

U.S.-China Summit Likely to Downplay Security Issues

The fact that Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping’s visit to Washington has been overshadowed by the frenzy over Iran is an indictment of the Beltway foreign-policy establishment’s priorities. The U.S.-China relationship is far more consequential than Iran, the Israel/Palestine dispute, the war in Afghanistan, or any other development in southwest or central Asia. This relationship will define U.S. foreign policy in the 21st century.

During the trip, Xi is likely to highlight the cooperative aspects of the U.S.-China relationship such as trade and the two countries’ shared interest in shoring up the global economy. The leaders are likely to gloss over their differences on issues such as intellectual property, the value of the renminbi, and creeping protectionism. Further down the list of issues are the growing security disputes between China and U.S. partners in the Asia-Pacific: the status of China’s claims in the South China Sea, the growing U.S. military presence in China’s region, and Beijing’s belief that Washington is encircling China militarily. It should be expected that these more contentious issues will take a backseat in the discussions, at least in public.

But putting the relationship on a sounder footing requires addressing security issues. Power transitions have represented some of the most unstable periods in world history. Should China’s relative power continue to grow, its ambition is likely to do the same. Given that there are few signs that Washington will welcome a larger Chinese role in Asian security issues, this could portend serious disagreements in the years to come.

America’s China Conundrum: Simultaneously Confronting and Engaging

Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is off to China for discussions with Chinese military officers. His trip follows a visit in May by China’s army chief of staff. The discussions are valuable since they will help increase transparency, if nothing else. But they won’t do much more if Adm. Mullen doesn’t bring the right message.

While the admiral is in China the U.S. Navy will be holding exercises with Australian and Japanese forces in the South China Sea. Although the number of ships involved is few, the maneuvers are meant to send a message to Beijing about its controversial territorial claims, which would turn much of these waters into a Chinese lake.

Washington has many issues at play with China—the status of Taiwan, trade and currency disagreements, support for North Korea, status of human rights, policy towards Iran. If the U.S. and People’s Republic of China cooperate, the 21st century is likely to be far more peaceful and productive. If the two nations confront each other, the future could turn ugly.

The ultimate question is whether Washington is prepared to accommodate a wealthier and more powerful PRC in coming years. Contrary to the fevered claims of some, the shift in global power likely will be gradual, not abrupt. The U.S. will remain richer, more influential, and possess a better military for years, if not decades. Indeed, China faces significant economic and political challenges and will be poorer than America even as its GDP grows larger.

However, while the speed and process of China’s rise is not guaranteed, its ability to deter U.S. military intervention will expand. Beijing’s outlay of $100 billion to $150 billion a year on the military already raises alarms in Washington, even though the latter devotes about $700 billion to “defense.” The reason? It is much cheaper for the PRC to defend itself than for the U.S. to sustain an offense capable of imposing Washington’s will on China. Beijing doesn’t need to build 11 carrier groups. It just needs the ability to sink American carrier groups.

Even if a new policy of containment seemed affordable, it still would not be in America’s interest to scatter military tripwires throughout East Asia. Americans obviously will remain very involved in Asian affairs. But alliances should be a means to an end, namely defending the U.S. Alliances should not become ends in themselves. It is hard to imagine what likely dispute—such as whose claim to the Paracel Islands is paramount—would justify the U.S. risking war with an increasingly well-armed nuclear PRC over issues the latter considered vital in its own neighborhood. Consider how Washington would react to Chinese military intervention in Central America.

The better approach would be to encourage friendly states to do more on their own behalf. In fact, that is already happening to some degree.

Japan is slowly moving beyond the strict limitations of Article 9 of its constitution, which technically bans a military. South Korea has begun looking at security beyond North Korea. Australia has embarked upon an ambitious security program. Several Southeast Asian nations have begun purchasing submarines and improving their militaries. All see, and generally fear, the specter of a rising, hostile China.

This process would be accelerated if Washington made clear that it planned to step back and would no longer act as the meddler of first resort. Countries must look after their own interests instead of automatically looking eastward for aid.

Adm. Mullen’s message in the PRC should be simple. China has gained much from its peaceful participation in the international system. Beijing will gain even more in the future if it continues the same strategy. If, however, it chooses aggressiveness over assertiveness, the PRC will have much to fear, and perhaps more from its own neighbors than America.