A Map of Conflicts in the South China Sea (Sam Pepple / Sample Cartography). Click to enlarge.
When U.S. Senators Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio), both vice presidential hopefuls, recently declared their opposition to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, they virtually guaranteed that it would be dead on arrival if it were sent to the Senate. A group of 34 senators, including Ayotte and Portman and led by Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), is now on the record promising to vote against UNCLOS, which is enough to make getting the two-thirds majority necessary for ratification impossible.
UNCLOS was first negotiated 30 years ago. But back then, U.S. President Ronald Reagan objected to it because, he argued, it would jeopardize U.S. national and business interests, most notably with respect to seabed mining. A major renegotiation in 1994 addressed his concerns, and the United States signed. Now, the U.S. Navy and business community are among UNCLOS' strongest supporters. So, too, was the George W. Bush administration, which tried to get the treaty ratified in 2007 but failed due to Republican opposition in the Senate.
Today's opponents, including Ayotte, DeMint, and Portman, focus on two issues. First, they argue, the treaty is an unacceptable encroachment on U.S. sovereignty; it empowers an international organization -- the International Seabed Authority -- to regulate commercial activity and distribute revenue from that activity. Yet sovereignty is not a problem: During the 1994 renegotiation, the United States ensured that it would have a veto over how the ISA distributes funds if it ever ratified the treaty. As written, UNCLOS would actually increase the United States' economic and resource jurisdiction. In fact, Ayotte, DeMint, and Portman's worst fears are more likely to come to pass if the United States does not ratify the treaty. If the country abdicates its leadership role in the ISA, others will be able to shape it to their own liking and to the United States' disadvantage.
The opponents' second claim is that the treaty would prevent the U.S. Navy from undertaking unilateral action, such as collecting intelligence in the Asia-Pacific region, because permission to do so is not explicitly granted in the text. According to Admiral Samuel Locklear, commander of U.S. Pacific Command, however, "The convention in no way restricts our ability or legal right to conduct military activities in the maritime domain." On the contrary, as U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta put it, U.S. accession to the convention "secures our freedom of navigation and overflight rights as bedrock treaty law." Even so, critics point out, the ultimate indispensability of U.S. naval power means that the country can receive the benefits of the convention without being bound by it. Since the world seems to have functioned perfectly well in this halfway house for some time, it would make no sense to codify the convention now. It would be comforting if all that were true. It isn't.
UNCLOS has become an important barometer of U.S. power in the Pacific Ocean. At stake is the country's capacity to uphold, preserve, and strengthen a rules-based order in Asia as China rises. In July 2010, at the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) in Hanoi, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated that the United States believes that all maritime territorial disputes in the South China Sea must be resolved multilaterally and in accordance with international law. It is a policy that she repeated at the deadlocked 2012 ARF in Cambodia. For its part, China objected to the "multilateralization" of maritime disputes then and continues to do so now. Beijing believes that it is more likely to make gains if it strikes individual bargains with weaker powers, including Manila and Hanoi. The other capitals realize this, which is why they welcomed Clinton's commitment to multilateralism.
A strong multilateral structure in Asia is a prerequisite to balancing Chinese assertiveness. The United States should not take sides in other countries' disputes, but it can and must insist upon a strong regional framework to ensure that a rising China does not destabilize the status quo. On this issue, the 34 senators who oppose the treaty are taking Beijing's side. They are speaking up for the bilateralism and unilateralism that will harm the U.S.-led regional order in the Asia-Pacific. No doubt, news of Ayotte and Portman's recent declarations was greeted warmly in Beijing. U.S. allies and strategic partners in South East Asia, meanwhile, will be even more doubtful of Washington's capacity to maintain its leadership role. It is strategic multilateralism in the Atlantic that helped the United States to win the twentieth century. Without concordant multilateralism in the Asia-Pacific, it will not fare so well in the twenty-first.
Protecting national sovereignty is a legitimate aim -- and one that some liberal internationalists may have been too cavalier about in the past. But for the goal to have any meaning, it must be framed so that it can be met. This is certainly what Reagan had in mind when he articulated a specific set of problems with the original UNCLOS that could be (and eventually were) dealt with. This time around, however, those who object to the treaty have defined sovereignty in such ideological terms that they will never be satisfied. By their reckoning, the United States can never be party to an international organization, even if it has veto status in it.
An international organization might very marginally limit U.S. freedom of action, but this is negligible in comparison to the harm that instability and conflict in the South China Sea could inflict on U.S. interests. Previous presidents from both parties understood the trade-off: In challenging times, and to exercise global leadership, Washington protected its interests by making enlightened commitments overseas, whether in the form of alliances, institutions, or foreign assistance.