Will China force the USA’s hand to revisit the Law of the Sea Convention?

On 28th May, US President Barack Obama again called upon the US Senate to ratify the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea 1982 (LOSC), following tension in the South China Sea. This area of the ocean is notoriously problematic, with China claiming sovereignty over almost all of the South China Seas and failing to recognise any rival claims from neighbouring States, such as Vietnam and the Philippines. Conflict appears to have been renewed afresh when Vietnam reported that a Chinese flagged vessel had intentionally struck two of its ships in the area at the beginning of May.

Although China has ratified the LOSC, it asserts that it has a historical claim over disputed islands that pre-date the 1982 treaty. On 1st June, the Deputy Chief of the General Staff of the People’s Liberation Army, Wang Guanzhong, speaking in the Shangri-La Dialogue, maintained that the Convention was “not the only point of reference” in adjusting sovereignty over islands and seas, strongly suggesting that mounting disputes and its membership of the Law of the Sea Convention would not cause it to reconsider the infamous ‘Nine Dash Line’ that demarcates its claim to the South China Sea. It takes this stance despite the fact that the Philippines filed a case with the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea in March challenging its sovereignty (China having already made known its refusal to take part in any such arbitration).

Nine Dash Line, Source: BBC.com

At the same summit, US Defense Secretary, Chuck Hagel, promised that the US would “not look the other way” whilst international law provisions were breached. However such statements would surely be more meaningful and persuasive if the USA itself had ratified the LOSC? Such a stance could appear to be hypocritical and difficult to take seriously. Although the Convention entered into force in 1994 and has since been ratified by 166 parties, the USA is yet to sign. The vote of at least two-thirds of the Senate is required to ratify a treaty, at least 67 Senators in this case. In 2012, 34 Republican Senators formally declared they would not support the ratification of the treaty; many feel that the LOSC would give the International Seabed Authority too much power over US commercial interests.

As tensions continue to escalate in the South China Seas, it will be noteworthy to see whether China will compel the US Senate to end its longstanding Democrat-Republican tug of war on this Convention. What’s more, if the US relents and signs the LOSC, however unlikely, what will its next move be? How will the US ratification of the treaty resolve these disputes and conflicting claims to land, sea and resources? It remains to be seen whether such talk by the USA will in fact lead to affirmative action or whether this is simply a shot across the bows.

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