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PACOM boss: Plenty of ocean for everybody


With Eurosatory over, it's back to our regularly scheduled programming, and a domain jump from land to sea.

Adm. Samuel Locklear, the head of Pacific Command, told reporters Friday that if every nation tried to be as restrictive in its claims to the ocean as is China -- and others, he was careful to add -- there wouldn't be much water left open to everyone else.

Here's what he said in answer to a question at the Pentagon:

There are countries that place excessive claims and excessive restrictions not consistent with international law and the law of the sea -- it's not just China though, there are many. As we look at the future, if you were to take all the world's economic zones and put the same restrictions ... you would basically restrict about 35 percent of the world's oceans. Every major sea line of communication, every major strait, would fall into that and it would globally put all nations concerned with access to the global commons -- access to the maritime commons -- it would put them, I think, further at risk if these excessive claims aren't resolved.

I encourage us as we go forward to have this dialogue but we should certainly use this format of law, international law, a format of forums to express those claims, articulate them. There'll have to be some compromise -- you can't just have continually competing claims that end up causing miscalculation at some point that lead us to conflict -- peace is the most important thing. These should be solved peaceably. There's enough resources about everyone in the world, we just have to be able to solve this adequately.

Locklear said he is planning to visit China soon, at its leaders' invitation, and he planned to bring this up. Beijing just can't claim the entire South China Sea as its own private lake, the U.S. insists -- you can't just decide that a coastal nation like Vietnam is suddenly land-locked. Everybody benefits from the trillions of dollars of trade that pass through the neighborhood, so why spoil the party?

What Locklear and other American commanders want is to handle this issue in a dull series of international summits and fora, not in tense standoffs on the high seas. That's one reason why the Defense Department has renewed its push for the Senate to ratify the Law of the Sea convention, so the U.S. will have a "leg to stand on," as it takes part in these international processes about freedom of navigation.

"By not acceding, we potentially undercut our credibility in a number of Asia-focused multilateral venues," Secretary Panetta told the Senate last month. "We're pushing, for example, for a rules-based order in the region and the peaceful resolution of maritime and territorial disputes in the South China Sea, the Strait of Hormuz and elsewhere."

But the treaty has been languishing for years and it continues to have powerful opponents. Besides, a skeptic might argue -- why would China suddenly give up its regional ambitions just because a few of its neighbors and the United States approached with a big stack of forms to sign?

Whatever happens among the diplomats, Locklear reaffirmed the Pentagon's belief that it must have its own relationships with its Chinese military counterparts, which both sides ideally could fall back upon in the event of a spike in tensions.

"It's critical that as China emerges we understand each other; we prevent misevaluation as we go forward," he said. "We'd certainly like to have our Chinese military counterparts be a positive influence on the security environment."

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