US Senate mulls UNCLOS ratification

by Rodney Jaleco, ABS-CBN North America News Bureau

Posted at May 22 2012 08:26 AM | Updated as of May 22 2012 04:26 PM

WASHINGTON D.C. - Some Filipino-Americans are banking on the United States to finally ratify the almost 2-decade-old United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) as a way to keep China at bay in the South China Sea.

The Senate foreign relations committee led by chairman, Democratic Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts has scheduled on Wednesday a hearing to discuss “national security and strategic imperatives for ratification” of the UNCLOS.

The Law of the Sea treaty has been ratified by 162 countries since it formally came into force in 1994.

The Philippines is relying on UNCLOS to provide the foundations for the peaceful settlement of the overlapping territorial claims in the South China Sea. It again revived proposals to mediate the impasse with China over Scarborough Shoal under the UNCLOS.

Both the Philippines and China have signed the UNCLOS (along with Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei that also have claims in the Spratly Islands).

Some Fil-Ams here have signaled their intention to attend the hearings to “shame the dragon into honoring their UNCLOS agreement” – referring to China that has been increasingly flexing its muscle in the South China Sea.

Scheduled speakers at the hearing include State Secretary Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, and Gen. Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The UNCLOS was supposed to replace 17th century conventions that limited a nation’s coastline to a specified belt of water, usually 3 miles from shore. But starting after World War II that line has extended farther and farther out to sea so that by 2008, only Jordan and Palau still observed the 3-mile limit.

China’s claim is defined by the so-called nine-dash line that is based on pre-Communist or even ancient maps. There is no mention of that in UNCLOS.

“Once a state becomes a party to UNCLOS, it is under obligation to bring its maritime claims and national laws into conformity with its rights and obligations under the convention,” explained Robert Beckman, Director of the Center for International Law, at an international law conference in Beijing last year.

“Although China has exercised its right to opt out of the system of compulsory dispute settlement relating to maritime boundary delimitation and historic waters,” Beckman said there are certain parts of the UNCLOS where they would have to be subject to a binding dispute settlement.

The US has resisted efforts to ratify the UNCLOS mainly because of restrictions on the exploitation of the seabed and because it has a powerful navy, critics say, the US doesn’t need it.

However, Secretary Clinton had declared ratification of UNCLOS as one of her priorities in the State Department – a position that appears to be fully attuned to President Obama. The military also wants it to avoid dealing with different maritime nations that have their own set of claims and conditions for the use of maritime areas and resources; and because it offers a peaceful way to resolve territorial disputes so they don’t have to come in and break up warring sides.