The US government has cast a long shadow over the Law of the Sea Treaty which has to be concluded this month at UN headquarters in New York. The proposed pact, involving 150 nations, would establish worldwide laws governing access to sea lanes and right to exploit the mineral wealth of the oceans.
After seven years of arduous negotiations, the most complex issues such as protection of the ocean environment, free passage of ships through international straits, and deep seabed mining had been resolved and embodied in 320 clauses.
"The remaining issues would have been settled during the 10th session of the conference [March 9 through April 24]." according to Tommy Koh, Singapore's ambassador.
Now the Reagan administration has decided to block completion of the treaty and has instructed its delegation to the conference to restrain from signing any agreement pending a major policy review on the whole matter.
According to reliable sources, some -- but not all -- of the leading American firms intent on exploiting the riches lying on the ocean bottom (mostly polymetallic nodules containing nickel, manganese, cobalt, and copper) see that too many concessions have been made to developing nations by previous American negotiators. They feel that a better deal can be extracted for US interests from other participants in the conference, most of whom possess neither the financial nor the technological means to engage in deep seabed mining.
These companies, primarily Kennecott Copper Corporation, are known to have high-level contacts in the new administration. They feel that the treaty, in its present form, unreasonably limits the amount of minerals to be exploited (60 percent of the yearly increase of the present world consumption) and puts an excessive financial burden on the US by forcing US firms to transfer precious technology to potential competitors. The US is also drained financially by providing funds to an international seabed authority supposed to manage deep seabed resources as "a common heritage of mankind."
Furthermore, some military advisers in Washington are reported to feel that "US concessions" on seabed mining in return for the Navy's global sailing rights -- which have been secured in the treaty -- are not really necessary. They are reported to believe that instead of signing a worldwide treaty, the US could deal bilaterally with the coastal nations involved. Other strategic considerations have also been taken into account by some officials in the new administration.
"By placing the mineral-rich nodules under UN supervision and by limiting our rights to exploit them, we may be losing a unique opportunity to help ourselves to much- needed raw materials," says one such official.
Until now it appeared that the US Navy had obtained all that it wanted from the Law of the Sea Conference. At a time of expanding claims of coastal jurisdiction, the Navy had secured the right to sail and to take up station without having to defy any challenge to its rights. "Using naked force and disregarding claims of sovereignty entails political, economic, and even military risks," says a high- ranking Western official who has been a prime mover of the conference.
"Many small countries now have mine-laying capabilities, patrol boats, and planes. Aside from that it might be counterproductive in the end for the United States to turn its back on international law after having for so long been its main supporter on the world scene," one analyst says.
Pending a US decision on whether to reopen negotiations on major issues or to abide by what it had agreed to at previous sessions of the conference, the 10th session will proceed with its work and try to resolve three remaining difficulties:
* The limitation of overlapping maritime boundaries.
* Definition of who may be a part of the treaty. (Several national liberation movements insist on being included, while the US and others see no legal basis for this.
* Setting up the machinery for resolving major differences.
The US demands that pioneer companies in deep seabed mining have the investments they have already made protected. As a reprisal for the "American snub at the UN," as one delegate puts it, the "Group of 77" has decided not to negotiate on this issue for the moment. Ironically, it was an American president, Lyndon B. Johnson, who first proclaimed that the seabed riches were "the common heritage of mankind."
Another American President, Harry S. Truman, started the whole process by declaring that the US had jurisdiction over the seabed resources of its continental shelf. Thus the idea of setting up laws for international maritime behavior cannot be blamed exclusively on some third-world leaders hoping to get a free ride.
"The Law of the Sea has not been sunk, but the unexpected US retreat from its previous commitments delivers a stunning blow to one of the most daring multilateral efforts in history and one which was on the threshold of successful completion," says to a third-world diplomat known to be a friend of the United States.