Signing Treaty Would Bolster US Against China, Russia Seapower: Lawmaker

In this photo released by China's Xinhua News Agency, officers and soldiers of China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) Navy hold a welcome ceremony as a Russian naval ship arrives in port in Zhanjiang in southern China's Guangdong
In this photo released by China's Xinhua News Agency, officers and soldiers of China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) Navy hold a welcome ceremony as a Russian naval ship arrives in port in Zhanjiang in southern China's Guangdong

As China continues to flex its strength in the South China Sea, an influential member of the House Armed Services Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee says he will revive a resolution urging the Senate to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, or UNCLOS.

Addressing an audience at the Surface Navy Association's annual symposium on Wednesday, Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Conn., the committee's ranking member in the last Congress who is in the running to chair the subcommittee, said the fact that the U.S. is not a signatory to the treaty "makes absolutely no sense."

"We are always sort of handicapped in trying to make the argument that China's territorial claims [in the South China Sea] are outrageous. The fact that we are not part of the Law of the Sea treaty gets thrown back in our face every time we try to assert our critique," he said.

UNCLOS governs the rights and responsibilities of countries regarding use of the oceans, including commercial endeavors, environmental protection and management. It has been signed by 168 groups, including 164 U.N. member nations.

The Senate last considered the treaty in 2012 at the urging of Sen. John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat who was then chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton supported ratification.

But the effort lacked the votes needed -- 67, or a two-thirds majority in the Senate -- for acceptance.

Courtney said -- given China's aggressive responses to U.S. naval presence in South China Sea, including coming within 45 yards of the guided-missile destroyer Decatur last September, and Russia's seizure of three Ukrainian naval vessels in the Sea of Azov -- it's in the nation's interest to reconsider the treaty.

"At the end of the day, if anyone is interested in freedom of navigation, it's us, and the fact that we are isolating ourselves from that process makes absolutely no sense," he said.

Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Karl Schultz said Aug. 1 in an interview at the Center for Strategic and International Studies that he favors signing the treaty.

"My predecessors have generally come out overtly in support of it. That's my default position," Schultz said. "But there has to be interest coming out of the Senate, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. We would welcome that conversation, and I suspect the [chief of naval operations] and others would too, but there's a lot of politics. It will have to be a priority for the Senate and the administration."

He added that being a party to the treaty would help with the growing challenges of patrolling the Arctic. "There are places regarding the outer continental shelf where ratifying it would clarify some things," Schultz said.

Courtney admitted that his proposed resolution may land with a thud in the Senate. "The Senate, in terms of composition, is probably challenging, but we need to do this. It's more important today than ever."

Objections to signing the treaty include misgivings about entering into treaties with other countries that could dictate U.S. policy. During the last effort to ratify it, several senators said that "no international organization owns the seas."

-- Patricia Kime can be reached at patricia.kime@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.

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