In recent days, top U.S. Cabinet officers have traveled around the world on high-profile diplomatic missions. Ironically, in the process of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s visit to the Arctic Circle and Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta’s travels in Asia, they both undercut the case for the U.N. Law of the Sea Treaty - one they had made jointly in testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Mrs. Clinton took part in a meeting of the Arctic Council, whose eight members have territory in that region. Of these, just five - Russia, Canada, Norway, Denmark’s Greenland and the United States - have coasts on the Arctic Ocean and therefore are able to claim rights to offshore resources.
To be sure, the secretary of state used the occasion of joining the other Arctic nations to forge a regionwide search-and-rescue agreement to express the Obama administration’s commitment to the Law of the Sea Treaty. She assured her colleagues that the president is determined to overcome opposition in the Senate and the country in order to get the treaty ratified.
Still, this search-and-rescue agreement suggests the obvious: It is far easier to achieve understandings in a group of eight - or, better yet, five - nations that have similar, if not identical, interests and a shared understanding of the stakes than among a group of 150-plus nations, most of which do not. If that is true for an accord governing assistance to downed planes and ships lost at sea, it surely is the case when it comes to the disposition of potentially many billions of dollars worth of undersea oil and gas deposits.
Meanwhile, our defense secretary was off in Asia trying to shore up America’s alliances in the region without actually saying that China is a threat that needs to be countered there. So he eschewed the president’s much-touted strategic “pivot” from the Middle East and South Asia to the South China Sea - supposedly involving a move in force to parry the People's Republic of China’s aspirations for hegemony. Instead, Mr. Panetta employed less-offensive terms such as “rebalancing” and made commitments about a future U.S. presence in the theater that were deeply discounted in light of ongoing and forthcoming sharp cuts in defense spending.
It happens that Mr. Panetta’s enthusiasm for the Law of the Sea Treaty tracks with the Obama administration’s public efforts to lowball the dangers posed by China’s increasingly aggressive behavior toward our Asian friends and allies, and its growing capacity to act coercively because of its growing military capabilities. He and, surprisingly, even senior Navy and other military officers who should know better seem to think that if only the United States were a party to the Law of the Sea Treaty, international law would tame the Chinese dragon.
As one of the nation’s most astute China hands, Gordon G. Chang, noted recently in his column at World Affairs Journal: “Although Beijing ratified the [Law of the Sea] 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 U.N. in 2006 that it would not accept international arbitration of its sovereignty claims.”
Just as common sense argues for using bilateral or, at most, five-party forums to establish arrangements governing the Arctic Ocean’s resources, it strongly militates against allowing the United States to be bound to a treaty whose core provisions (i.e., those governing limitations on territorial claims and mandatory dispute resolutions) already are being serially violated by communist China.
On May 9, Mr. Panetta nonetheless asserted, “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.” That is simply not so if, as is true of the Law of the Sea Treaty’s various institutions, we would have but one seat among many, and no certainty that we can decisively “influence bodies that develop and interpret the Law of the Sea.”
In fact, thanks to the rigged-game nature of those institutions, such bodies can be relied upon to hamstring us by, for example, applying environmental regulations over which we have no control to our Navy’s anti-submarine warfare exercises and our domestic emissions into inland air and water that migrates to the international oceans.
Meanwhile, the Chinese will get away with choosing which rules they will abide by and which they won’t. Mr. Chang puts it this way: “[China] is … a signatory to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, but remains a notorious nuclear proliferator, and it is a member of the World Trade Organization, yet brazenly disregards its trade obligations. And U.N. sanctions? China openly violates those too, even though it is one of the five permanent members of the Security Council.”
In short, the Obama administration wants senators to suspend common sense and ignore real and legitimate concerns about the deleterious impact of the Law of the Sea Treaty on our sovereignty, economic interests and potentially even the national security. Will 34 senators have enough common sense to just say “no”?
Frank J. Gaffney Jr. is president of the Center for Security Policy (www.SecureFreedom.org), a columnist for The Washington Times and host of the nationally syndicated program “Secure Freedom Radio,” heard in Washington weeknights at 9 p.m. on WRC 1260 AM.