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Senators Renew Call to Ratify Law of the Sea Treaty to Help Chart Future of the Arctic

US Coast Guard Icebreaker USCGC Healy (WAGB-20). US Coast Guard Photo

Two key senators have renewed a more than 30-year-old United States call to ratify the Law of the Sea Treaty in order to have a seat at the table involving the Arctic’s future.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said Wednesday by not ratifying the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea the United States is locked out of international enforcement of what it considers its outer continental shelf for possible development and protection, the seabed and fisheries.

Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), also a member of the committee, called the Senate’s failure to ratify the pact “a huge self-inflicted wound,” speaking Wednesday at the Center for International and Strategic Studies. The failure to ratify based on arguments of loss of American sovereignty if approved means “right now we’re not in the game” in deciding broad maritime issues.

Both senators, members of the Arctic Caucus, said the position of special representative for the Arctic is filled by the Trump administration. Robert Papp, retired commandant of the Coast Guard, held that position during the Obama administration when the United States chaired the Arctic Council. The United States turned over the chair early this year.

The nation “needs somebody who wakes up every morning” thinking about this issue, King said.

“Our reality [in the Arctic] has been limited by access” from port to roads to telecommunications, Murkowski said. She added that before development takes place the United States and other Arctic nations need “to ensure certain protocols are in place.” Noting also hat an Italian energy firm will begin exploration later this year in American waters, Murkowski said, “No one wants to see an oil spill.”

Despite low energy prices, “Russia is moving quite quickly” in oil exploration. Russia is the largest nation in the Arctic.

She and King praised the Arctic Council, consisting of the eight nations bordering the Arctic, for its work and spirit of cooperation on oil spills and response, search and rescue and overall preparedness. New attention is being paid to search and rescue in the Arctic since the cruise ship Crystal Serenity transited the Northwest Passage from the Pacific Coast and docked first in North America at Bar Harbor, Maine.

King added while there is great opportunity in the Arctic and also in the North Atlantic there “are countervailing risks — ice and insurance” to cover movements through those waters and economic development in the region.

Murkowski said the administration needs to be award of immediate infrastructure needs in the American Arctic. The same is true in Canada. Where Europe’s far northern regions have a relatively developed infrastructure, she pointed to the need to develop a deep-water port at Nome, Alaska; building roads connecting settlements and expanding broadband communications.

She also counted heavy icebreakers as an infrastructure need. “More than one, studies out there suggest six.”

King added “continued support for science” as an infrastructure need. Using oil exploration as an example of why scientific research is important there, he said working in the Arctic “is a whole different issue than the Gulf of Mexico.” He asked what happens to the oil in a spill under those conditions.

King specifically mentioned NOAA and the Coast Guard as among institutions responsible for modernizing navigation charts, measuring currents and assessing fisheries that need continuing federal government funds to meet those missions.

“I think we have a receptive administration” for these projects, Murkowski said. Later in answer to a question, she added, “If we don’t have the infrastructure in place … it is hard to be a partner in the broader economic opportunity” available in the Arctic.

  • FelixA9

    “the United States is locked out of international enforcement of what it
    considers its outer continental shelf for possible development and
    protection, the seabed and fisheries.”

    We have a navy. We can do it ourselves.

    • KazuakiShimazaki

      That tack had worked (on a selfish level) when 1) the USN was the only real player in town and or 2) any other players are so accepted as “enemy” in the national consciousness there are no real interests (like trade) to lose in a hardline approach without real reference to law. To be specific, a Cold War scenario.

      Unfortunately, the United States had made the strategic mistake of letting a certain populous nation get powerful without first dragging it into line. Sure we can still hope that country would roll over sometime, but increasingly we have to plan for the contingency it would not. In such a scenario, the binding force of law is a very valuable practical aid. When the PRC kicked off the arbitration last year, how many Americans were thinking “Maybe we should not have had so much fun in Nicaragua in the 80s?” It is easy to undervalue law when you are powerful (like the PRC now), but you might have cause to regret things when you become less than supreme.

      • Cato

        Thanks Kazuaki.
        These principles are equally true in the Arctic. The provisions of the Convention relating to the continental shelf and related rights are valuable tools for the U.S. to use in protecting its security and right to use resources in the region. There is clear value for the U.S. in getting a seat at the table where issues like Russian seabed claims are considered. While rhetoric about the strength of the U.S. is always gratifying, it rings a little less true in the Arctic, where we can deploy at most an icebreaker or two, and is not a reason to discard legal tools that we can also use to further our interests in the region.

  • Curtis Conway

    As long as the US Navy adheres to the highest principles, AND THE United States GOVERNMENT DOES NOT diplomatically COMPROMISE on those principles, then the Unified Combatant Commanders can stand on that foundation of Moral High Ground, as we have for decades after we saved the planet from itself . . . twice (WWI, WWII) . . . and when enforcing International Law as prescribed by the United Nations Resolutions, and Unilaterally when in the US interest in support of Allies, or meeting Treaty Obligations. We need not bind ourselves with mechanisms that others will use against us, to their advantage, UNLESS the United States GOVERNMENT intends to compromise on Principles, at which point they will lose my support and my vote. All those who clamor for such a ratification probably have other agendas.

    • KazuakiShimazaki

      Claiming to be bound to the highest principles is not equivalent to be willing to legally bind yourself to a legal instrument, you know.

    • DaSaint

      Got to disagree there Curtis. How do we hold China to one set of international rules particularly on claims to islands and passage, and then not fully participate to one that affects our own backyard? We cannot dwell in the early or mid 20th century, as glorious as those times were for the victorious. Great Britain was in fact truly great, for centuries, with the worlds most powerful navy. They didn’t give that up voluntarily. They were eclipsed by the growth of a rich and eventually powerful former colony – America.

      Times do not stand still, and it’s going to be hard to ignore the continued growth of a country with a BILLION people. Maybe not now, maybe not in 10 years, but the China of today is not the china of 1972, and is not the china of 1906. So the China of 2040 is going to be a completely different animal.

      The US is long overdue in signing this treaty, and most of our Naval and particularly Coast Guard leaders will tell you so privately, as they can’t publicly. It’s time.

      • Curtis Conway

        In my early enlisted Navy days I of was of your mindset, and though what was good for the goose was good for the dander. Then I sent several tours working with Staff units and spending time with the JAG folks. My understanding changed and the UNCLOS for those who signed placed them in a position that permitted the US Navy to support them in enforcing International Law, and Resolutions passed by the UN. The Unified Combatant Commanders do exactly that every day. Our greatest adversaries with which we must deal is those nations who signed UNCLOS and violate not only the letter, but certainly the Spirit contained in UNCLOS, and they do it deliberately, with an agenda just to see how far the US will go in enforcement. Like your kids making Red Herring arguments, these adversaries will jump up and down and point at everybody and everything around them to keep the US distracted from what they are doing, until it is a ‘fait accompli’ (South China Sea artificial islands), and then when confronted with this phenomena they point their finger at us (US) and say “you didn’t sign UNCLOS”, which in no way excuses their transgressions, and changes not the equation one iota, even if we did go sign, which would change very little if anything, except limit our activities. No . . . I’m holding pat on my position.

        • DaSaint

          I can respect that. And disagree.

        • I agree with Curtis. Words on paper have little to do with realpolitik, which like it or not is the way of the world. Words on paper did little to protect the sovereignty of Ukraine; whereas had they retained their nuclear weapons….

          Perhaps we can consider this treaty after the rest of the world shows us “good faith” on climate change. Don’t hold your breath – on second thought maybe you should, it would reduce your carbon footprint.

          • Curtis Conway

            We (the Western Powers) made promises to Ukraine on paper. Did them a lot of good didn’t it?!
            As for Climate Change . . . do you suppose we can get the Global Warmer, Climate Change folks to hold their breaths until the air clears up?

  • Ruckweiler

    Law of the Sea is a leftist dream to hamstring the US. Period.

  • old guy

    Why, China ignores it now, with no adverse effects, to her.

    • SDW

      Hardly a model to aspire to…