Home » News & Analysis » Zukunft: U.S. Presence in Arctic Won’t Stop Chinese, Russian Encroachment Without Law of the Sea Ratification

Zukunft: U.S. Presence in Arctic Won’t Stop Chinese, Russian Encroachment Without Law of the Sea Ratification

The crew of the Coast Guard Cutter Healy, a 420-foot Medium Icebreaker homeported in Seattle, conducts a shakedown cruise in the Puget Sound in preparation for their Summer trip to the Arctic, May 22, 2017. US Coast Guard photo.

The Coast Guard commandant warned that his service’s presence in the Arctic may not be enough to ward off Chinese and Russian encroachment unless the U.S. signs the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea – and that even if the U.S. signed the treaty now, it might be too little, too late.

Adm. Paul Zukunft said a Chinese icebreaker – called MV Xue Long, or Snow Dragon – is headed to the Arctic now, towards what the United States considers its extended continental shelf. Under the Law of the Sea treaty, countries may declare a continental shelf that extends beyond the traditional 200-mile exclusive economic zone around its shores – but without being a signatory to the Law of the Sea convention, the U.S. claim to that extended continental shelf is at risk.

Despite not being a signatory, Zukunft said medium icebreaker USCGC Healy (WAGB-20) has been following UN protocols and mapping that shelf, which is about the size of Texas. In and under the sea floor, he said, are 13 percent of the world’s oil reserves, a third of the natural gas reserves, and a trillion dollars’ worth of rare earth minerals that cannot be accessed now but could be in the near future.

Despite U.S. attempts to shore up its claims to this territory, “the Snow Dragon, or otherwise known as the Xue Long, is on her way up to the Arctic from China, and they routinely stop and do research in our extended continental shelf – they’ve established a pattern there,” Zukunft said, speaking at an event co-hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the U.S. Naval Institute.
“So if and when we ratify the Law of the Sea Convention, I would expect those who have ratified will protest and say, well that’s part of the global commons, and we, China, have always operated there.”

The commandant noted extensive Russian claims in the Arctic as well, and said the U.S. would need both the convention’s laws on its side and the ability to defend its sovereign territory – and urged the passage of the treaty.

“Russia has claimed most of the Arctic Ocean, all the way up to the North Pole, as a signatory of the Law of the Sea Convention and has filed this claim. And obviously we’ve seen what’s happened in the east South China Sea – even though the UN tribunal found in favor of the Philippines, it has not altered the behavior of China in the east South China Sea. So it’s one thing if you ratify and it’s one thing if you have a ruling in your favor, but what you have is a piece of paper at the end of the day. If you don’t have the means to enforce this aspect of the law, then what you really have is nothing more than a paper dragon to counter a Snow Dragon.”

“I can’t state more profoundly the fact that we’re not in the best of company,” Zukunft said of countries that have not ratified the treaty. “It’s probably time for us to join the club and ratify.”

Zukunft is not alone expressing frustration with the Senate’s decades-long inaction. In July, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) discussed at CSIS how not signing the 1982 treaty puts the U.S. at a disadvantage.

King called the Senate’s failure to ratify the pact, “a huge self-inflicted wound.” Not signing due to concerns about losing some American autonomy, King said, means the U.S. is not a part of global conversations deciding broad maritime issues.

  • Sons of Liberty

    I would suggest that we are more than capable of enforcing our territorial sovereignty without signing an agreement that would cause other issues to freedom and restrict and limit our sovereignty.

    This deal is still as bad as when Ronald Reagan rejected it. Frankly, these comments by the commandant of the CG serious puts his leadership and understanding of his responsibilities in question.

    If he wishes to adviacate for what we properly leave to civilian leadership he should resign and run for office. In no way does Law of the Sea help with enforcing the US Economic Zone. Its foolish of him to even suggest it does.

    • Cate

      Adm. Zukunft’s comments were focused on the Extended Continental Shelf in areas where it is outside the EEZ. This replaced the modest claim to the geological continental shelf by President in 1945 and the ambiguous definition the 1958 Geneva Convention on the Law of the Sea. The UNCLOS definition is needed to provide internationally recognized title to resources recovered from the extended shelf, because without international recognition no funder is going to provide the capital need to develop the resources.

      As to President Reagan’s decision not to sign the convention in 1982, in that year he also provided 6 criteria for a treaty he would sign (all related to the hard minerals on the deep ocean floor). All six criteria were met in 1994 with a binding agreement and we have 23 years of experience to assure us that agreement was successful.

      It is time to recognize that Reagan succeeded, that the Navy and Coast Guard are right in saying we should join the LOS Convention.

      • DaSaint

        Well said.
        Others have identified the resources located on the continental shelf and will exploit them accordingly.

        • Sons of Liberty

          They may want to but the USN is capable of enforcing sovereignty.

      • Sons of Liberty

        You are incorrect the Law of the Sea was not ammended to meat Reagans requirements.


      • Sons of Liberty

        No the treaty has not met President Regans requirements. As Amb Kirkpatrick testified in 2004 against ratification to the Armed Services Committee, in which she argued that “Viewed from the perspective of U.S. interests and Reagan Administration principles, it was a bad bargain,” and that “its ratification will diminish our capacity for self-government, including, ultimately, our capacity for self-defense.”

        Beyond that youbown statement argue that the treaty is flawed and feckless. I assume from yuur stance that you are concerned about the China and Russian bogeymen. Giev that both ate party to treeay they have already agreed to live by the treaty. Thus they respect the territorial claims of the treay and hild them inviolable.

        So i am unsure how the ratifing treaty helps in anyway.

        • Cate

          I see that you have read up on the provisions of the 1994 Agreement – would you be so kind as to tell me three to five specific items in the seabed/common heritage provisions that you believe are fatal flaws or areas you think are likely to go against US interests if we join? I will be attending the upcoming annual session of the International Seabed Authority as an observer for a mineral economics organization and I would like to see how the ISA’s practice addresses your concerns. I’ll be pleased to report what I learn here.

          Thank you.

      • old guy

        Time for “Little Z” to become history

    • Murray

      Please explain how the USN is to enforce America’s Arctic territorial sovereignty. Exactly how many ice-capable surface combatants does the USN operate? The answer is of course absolutely none. The USN will only be capable of enforcing Arctic sovereignty as and when a CSG can operate in the Beaufort Sea for at least 6 months in a year.

      • Sons of Liberty

        Ice is a two way street effecting both parties. But to start with P8 surveillance and SSNs. if another nation state is using breakers we are more than capable of air interdiction.

        lOS does nothing to change this fact and as the world has seen in SCC legal rules ate useless with out force.

        • Stephen

          At mile marker 201; a platform could drill into “our” shelf. Angle-drilling allows that platform access to all reserves under that shelf. P8 would vanish from radar w/I moments of an Arctic conflict. Our SSNs, under ice, would be of little consequence.

  • FelixA9

    China will do in the Arctic the same as it’s doing in the South China Sea. A piece of paper won’t stop it, and unless we grow a spine, and defend our claims, they will own that too.

    • DaSaint

      You can’t have a claim, unless it’s universally accepted and registered.

      • Sons of Liberty

        We established the claim in 1945 under Truman and is universally accepted and adopted by many other nations under laws if the sea and led to UNCLOS.

        Im amazed at the politcal arrogance of pushing a treaty that has already been rejected by the US Senate.

        A treaty in which your very arguement undermines it value. If you are so aftaid of the big bad boogeymen (russia & China) then UNCLOS is useless. Both are oarties to the agreemwnt and agree to abide by it. Or are you saying the treaty is useless and meaningless because even its signatories dont follow it?

        You cant have it both ways. If it actually deters others then we have nothing to fear and no nees to be a party to it. Those others are parties to the agreeememt and acknowledge they will live and operate under it so they would never poach our territory.

        • DaSaint

          Are you saying that the U.S. should no longer sign any international agreements? Or are you able to predict, in advance, which ones will be followed to the letter of the law by their signatories? Or are you saying that we should withdraw from the ones we’ve signed because they are often violated in some ways by the other parties?

          My position is simply that we are a nation of laws. They are not always flowed, but we have them and enforce them wherever possible. We want this planet of ours to similarly be a planet of laws. For that to happen, we can’t self-serving pick the ones that are only on our interests, and ignore the otherwise commonly agreed ones which we don’t like. To do so paves the way for others to do exactly the same.

          I’m no expert of the treaty, and frankly don’t recall if it was ever voted on or juat not voted on, but that doesn’t preclude the ability for it to be reintroduced and reinforced and passed. That’s my rather long and overdrawn point, so forgive my verbosity.

          • Sons of Liberty

            I am saying tr US should not sign this treaty its no in Us interest or in our national security interest.
            It’s a bad bargain and will diminish our capacity for self-government, including, ultimately, our capacity for National defense.

            It great if you are some no transnationalist that doesnt believe in sovereignty and self government nor legal adjudication in a impartial court of law.

            It runs counter to the rule of law and does not allow for individuals to seek relief in a court of law as we have had under centuries of common and maritime law.

          • DaSaint

            Ok. Noted.

        • Cate

          Truman’s claim was to the geological continental shelf, which was generally accepted in practice to follow the 200 meter isobath. Once we knew that oil was found across the entire continental margin we tried to negotiate a new, internationally accepted definition. That resulted in an ambiguous definition in the 1958 Continental Shelf Convention so we tried again in the LOS Convention – and succeeded. Our claims, when the scientific measurements are reviewed in accordance with the rules we rote in the Convention, will give us international recognized jurisdiction over the minerals and any exploitation activity in the Arctic far beyond the EEZ and even, in some areas, beyond the geologic continental margin to distances of 600 nautical miles or more. That international recognition is why US oil companies support US ratification of the LOS Convention. We probably won’t see development at those distances in our lifetimes, but the resources will be there for future generations of Americans to develop.

        • Cate

          By the way, the LOS Convention has never been rejected by the Senate. Opponents have mustered enough senators who don’t want to be forced to choose between US industry and Armed Services supporting the Convention and opposition groups like the Heritage Foundation to avoid having the Convention brought to the floor. While the Convention has been voted out the Foreign Relations committee with a favorable recommendation on two occasions, it has never be allowed to the floor for a vote of the full senate.

    • Sons of Liberty

      Its a different calculus when playing that game with another nuclear aed nation. And if not then an alpha strike would remind them.

    • old guy

      The Russkies may have something to say about that.

  • Dave Lacey

    Case in point: just how has this “Law of The Sea” prevented China’s vast illegal encroachment around the Phillipines and Viet Nam maritime rights?
    Probably no more effective than the League of Nations constraints on Japan and Germany eighty years ago.
    Time to shed the imaginary shield of gentlemanly diplomatic constraints, whose failure always precedes conflict, and “man up” with significant resources in the field and on the line. A capable armed presence is what kept the Cold War from getting hot.
    Dave Lacey

    • sferrin

      Anymore, “gentlemanly diplomatic constraints”, is just a fig-leaf to justify not doing anything.

    • old guy

      Very astute.

  • Kim Chul Soo

    Zukunft doesn’t have time to deal with this with his big tranny loving comments in the news. Court martial this SOB.

  • old guy

    He’s just not the sharpest knife in the drawer.

  • old guy

    How in the world did a whacko like Zukunft become Commandant? Check out his incredible record.

    • Sons of Liberty

      He was appointed by the last administration because of his view on Progressive Issues.