Adrift from sea law

President Reagan has cut the United States adrift from the international community by announcing that he will not sign the Law of the Sea Treaty adopted by 130 nations this year. The question is whether the US - and its seabed mining companies - will be able to do better for themselves by going it alone on seas charted by others.

The prospects are so negative that a future president is likely to sign the document if only to reduce the endless litigation in seeking to claim US rights under a treaty to which it is not a party. And this final document may be less favorable to US interests than it could have been if Mr. Reagan were to keep trying for improvements instead of abandoning US participation except on what he calls a technical expert level.

Some adjustments are still possible during the Law of the Sea conference's final considerations before signing begins in December. These could help to ensure agreement by other nations with lingering doubts, leaving the US further isolated.

What does it matter? Won't the US be able to take advantage of all the treaty provisions it has supported over these many years of negotiation - items to do with pollution control, fishing rights, free passage for military vessels, to name a few?

The Reagan administration evidently believes the answer is yes on the assumption that these will fit into customary international law. But there is a contrary opinion that the treaty could be regarded as a contract, with certain benefits as well as responsibilities applying only to the contracting parties. US interests could languish while courts are sorting the matter out.

What of the treaty regulations on commercial exploitation of seabed minerals to which the Reagan administration has particularly objected? Will US companies be exempted from these? Again, litigation looms. To avoid it, US companies might have to go to countries that are parties to the treaty. Thus direct US access to strategic minerals could be compromised.

But couldn't the US enter into a mini-treaty with other seabed miners such as Britain and France and avoid getting involved with the whole spectrum of the third world? The treaty itself authorizes a mini-treaty for countries with mining claims, but only among signers of the new Law of the Sea Treaty, deterring them from joining alternative treaties, such as one with a nonsigning United States.

Surely Mr. Reagan was aware of such questions when he reached his decision not to sign. They have been raised not only by the longstanding nongovernmental advocates of the treaty but by the conservative lawyer who served as deputy chairman of the US delegation to the final negotiating session, Leigh Ratiner.

Indeed, Mr. Ratiner looks beyond the effects on America's sea interests. In the current Foreign Affairs he warns of a long-term foreign policy setback to America's influence in international economic and political matters once the rest of the world sees that it can put together and operate such a far-reaching treaty without American participation and leadership. Such a loss would be far worse than any of the restrictions on American operations that the Reagan administration resisted so strenuously in the treaty.

No one would want a presidential decision written in water. Yet must it be carved in stone?

Perhaps, even without US leadership, the final adjustments in the treaty will permit the President to reconsider.

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