The stage has been set for a major row between the Reagan administration and the third world following inconclusive talks here aimed at wrapping up the draft of a sea treaty.
The talks ended Aug. 28 with the US and third-world delegations at loggerheads over Mr. Reagan's demand for a review of the treaty, which he feels opens the way to an alliance of the Soviet bloc and third world, and could curb US access to strategic minerals on the sea floor.
The conference has decided to hold a final session in New York next March, to be followed by the treatyhs signing in Caracas in September. And for the first time, third-world spokesmen have raised the possibility of going head without the US. Tommy Koh, Singapore's Ambassador to the United Nations and the chairman of the conference, said after the meeting that the timetable showed "our collective determination that with or without the US -- preferably with -- we intend to bring this conference to a successful conclusion next spring."
Meanwhile, the US delegation, consistent with the policy of not taking any position until the treaty has been reviewed by Mr. Reagan, declined even to commit the US to participating in the March session or the Caracas signing. Virtually the only reassurance offered by US delegation head James Malone was that he now has enough information to allow Mr. Reagan to complete his review -- which was expected to end by the late fall.
From there on, the US and the third world seem on a collision course. While third-world delegates feel that some of Mr. Reagan's fears could be alleviated -- for instance, by guaranteeing the US a seat on a key 36-member council that will determine deep-sea mining policy -- most of them are seen to be so fundamental that they could not be met without unraveling the whole treaty and turning back the clock on eight years' work.
The US also seems more isolated from other Western allies that it was at the start: The West Germans share many of the US doubts about the proposed regime for deepseas mining, but West Germany has been designated as the host of a new 21-member tribunal which will adjudicate disputes, partly on the condition that West Germany ratifies the treaty.
Britain, the current European Community (EC) president, has come under pressure from smaller European nations to stand up to the US. The British are also aware that the treaty is very much to their advantage, in that it confirms Britain's claims to North Sea oil and allows its exploitation of the continental shelf beyond the 200-mile limit while at the same time providing freedom of navigation.
Canada, another ally of the US, is resigned to a major clash with the Americans if, as seems probable, Mr. Reagan calls for the dismantling of a provision that imposes a ceiling on sea-bed mineral production. This is intended to cushion land-based mineral producers like Canada from being swamped once sea-bed minerals come on stream.
Meanwhile, the conference further narrowed outstanding issues by adopting a compromise on maritime boundary disputes that refers to "existing state practice." The effect of this, say observers, will be to lean toward states that favor drawing a median line out from the land or between coasts -- as Canada has proposed in its long-running dispute with the US over Georges Bank -- instead of applying other "equitable principles." The US delegation opposed the compromise when it was debated last week.
While the lobbying here has often obscured the issues, the recent clash between Libyan and American fighters has, in the view of many, sharply underlined the importance of the treaty. The Libyan claim to the gulf of Sidra is based on the principle of a "straight baseline," which has been applied by several others states, including Canada, the Soviet Union, Norway, and Burma.
Although delegates feel Libya's claim is probably too extravagant to be upheld, they also say it is sufficiently grounded in law and practice to need clarification.