To prevent wars, the United States needs the best tools of peace. But right now it is missing a critical one in not approving the Law of the Sea Treaty.
Adopting this international pact, which 153 nations now follow, could come in very handy as the US tries to help end a heated conflict in East Asian waters.
Since early April, China and the Philippines have been in a tense, ship-to-ship standoff over control of a disputed shoal in the South China Sea. As a defense ally of the Philippines, the US could be obligated to assist the Philippines if China forcibly takes Scarborough Shoal.
In the past, China has shown it is willing to kill the soldiers of other countries in taking various islands in the sea. Even on Wednesday, China stated that it “has ... made all preparations to respond to any escalation of the situation by the Philippine side.”
China’s aggressive tactics to assert maritime rights and claims in the seas around its shores could be better countered if the US were on firm legal ground with a rules-based approach to resolving such disputes. To achieve that, the Senate must approve the Law of the Sea Treaty soon.
The six nations that contest the islands, reefs, and waters of the South China Sea are all signatories to the pact. But China’s interpretation of it is often vague or not widely accepted. It relies on its economic muscle to gain concessions or reject international mediation of a dispute.
Even the map that China uses to assert a claim hundreds of miles from its mainland consists of only a few ill-defined lines. In addition, it seems to prefer dealing with each claimant nation individually in hopes of avoiding a multilateral approach.
This current dispute is not just over a wave-battered shoal. The South China Sea is home to one-third of the world’s traffic in the shipping trade. Half of the world’s oil and gas runs through it. The sea may contain large stores of petroleum. In fact, China is ready to start its first deepwater oil drill in the area.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta made a plea Wednesday for the Senate to approve the treaty. He is backed up by military commanders who seek the legal protection for Navy ships to travel the high seas without harassment, as China has shown it will do.
“By moving off the sidelines and leading the discussion, we would be able to influence those treaty bodies that develop and interpret the Law of the Sea,” Mr. Panetta said.
Critics of the treaty contend it would unfairly restrict the US too much in mining the seabed for minerals. But under rules of the treaty’s International Seabed Authority, the US would be able to veto any proposed implementation of such provisions.
In 2010, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton declared that resolution of the disputes in the South China Sea is in America’s interest. This assertion at first angered China, but it has since shown some moderation in its behavior.
Now would be a good time to further that momentum by joining the treaty. It might help bring China into honoring the international norms of the sea. Without the US officially endorsing such rules and principles, disputes like those in the South China Sea could easily escalate to war. Tools of peace are needed before that happens.