GOP Scuttles Law-of-Sea Treaty

Posted on July 16, 2012


In this photo released by China’s Xinhua News Agency, a Chinese patrol ship, right, encounters a Japanese Coast Guard vessel near the disputed islands in the East China Sea, on July 11, 2012. (AP Photo/Xinhua, Luo Zhengguang)

Senate Democrats’ hopes of passing the Law of the Sea Treaty sank Monday, when a pair of Republican senators announced their opposition to ratification.

Sens. Rob Portman of Ohio and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire penned a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) saying, “we have concluded that on balance this treaty is not in the national interest of the United States.”

The treaty, completed in 1982, seeks to codify big chunks of customary international maritime law, including freedom of navigation and access to deep-sea energy resources. It is supported by a wide swath of business interests, environmentalists, and military officials in the U.S.; most countries have ratified it.

The announcement Monday that Sens. Portman and Ayotte — both considered possible running mates for GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney – would vote “no,” puts the final nail in the treaty’s coffin, for this Congress at least. Previously, 32 other senators had expressed their opposition to the treaty, which needed 67 votes for ratification. The Senate took up the issue again this spring, five years after its last failed effort.

Like the other lawmakers opposed to the bill, Sens. Portman and Ayotte zeroed in on what they see as the treaty’s erosion of U.S. sovereignty, both in terms of international arbitration of disputes and the possibility that a supranational body could impose binding rulings on the U.S.

“In short, we are deeply concerned about the treaty’s breadth and ambiguity, the inadequate U.S. input in the treaty’s adjudicative bodies, and the automatic enforcement of tribunal judgments in the United States,” they wrote. “On balance, we believe the treaty’s litigation exposure and impositions on U.S. sovereignty outweigh its potential benefits.  For that reason, we cannot support the Law of the Sea treaty and would oppose its ratification.”

The office of Sen. John Kerry (D., Mass.), the Foreign Relations Committee chairman, dismissed the public statements as election-season politicking, and vowed to keep fighting for the treaty.

“No letter or whip count changes the fact that rock-ribbed Republican businesses and the military and every living Republican Secretary of State say that this needs to happen, and that’s why it’s a matter of ‘when’ not ‘if’ for the Law of the Sea,” said Kerry spokeswoman Jodi Seth.

Republicans are trumpeting their opposition to the treaty even though it would boost U.S. access to undersea resources and domestic energy production is important to GOP campaigns this year.

In the Arctic, where warming temperatures are opening up greater areas for offshore oil and gas exploration, sorting out who owns what energy resources threatens to be a contentious point in future years. All Arctic nations except the U.S. are signatories of the Law of the Sea treaty, which gives ratifying states clear title to the resources on its continental shelf.

“Not since we acquired the lands of the American West and Alaska have we had such a great opportunity to expand U.S. sovereignty,” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said at a news conference earlier this year urging support for ratification.

One of the enduring mysteries of the treaty is how it has failed to even come up for a ratification vote given the breadth of support it enjoys from widely disparate groups. Former secretaries of State, both Republicans and Democrats, top civilian and uniformed Pentagon officials, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, environmentalists, and former presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton have all been vocal supporters.

They argue that the treaty would not erode U.S. sovereignty. On the contrary, they say, it would enhance the country’s ability to defend freedom of navigation, would improve U.S. companies’ access to undersea resources, and would give the U.S. legal tools to parry threats from aggressive countries, such as China.

Tensions in Asia notched up over the weekend after a Chinese incursion into disputed waters, and tensions in the South China Sea have been running high in recent years due to what many nations see as China’s excessive maritime claims in the region.

Keith Johnson

Posted in: Politics