By Karen Parrish
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, June 15, 2012 – The Law of the Sea Convention is one avenue toward peacefully resolving competing maritime claims that could otherwise lead to conflict, the leader of U.S. Pacific Command said here today.
Navy Adm. Samuel J. Locklear III spoke to Pentagon reporters following his testimony yesterday as part of a military panel addressing the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the Law of the Sea Convention.
The United Nations treaty opened for signature in December 1982 and took effect in November 1994, after 60 countries had signed. The United States has not ratified the treaty, but the nation’s military leaders have in recent months urged U.S. accession to the agreement.
Locklear told the committee yesterday the convention "is essential to locking in a stable, legal framework for the maritime domain that is favorable to our national interest and preserves our access to this critical region."
As a Pacific power, the United States has defended freedom, enabled prosperity and protected peace in the region for more than six decades, and it must continue to lead security efforts, the admiral said in testimony.
He told senators, "The convention specifically codifies the rights, the freedoms and the uses of the sea that are critical for our forces to transit through and operate in the waters of the Asia-Pacific region."
Population and economic growth in the Asia-Pacific make competing maritime claims both more numerous and more contentious, he said.
"Nowhere is this more prevalent than in the South China Sea, where claimants have asserted broad territorial and sovereignty rights over land features, sea space and resources in the area," Locklear noted.
"The convention is an important component of a rules-based approach that encourages peaceful resolution of these maritime disputes," he said in testimony. "Moreover, the convention codifies an effective balance of coastal state and maritime state rights, a stable legal framework that we help to negotiate that is favorable to our interests and that we should leverage as a check on states that attempt to assert excessive maritime claims."
Because the United States is not a party to the convention, he said, "Our challenges are less credible than they might otherwise be."
Joining the convention would place the United States "in a much stronger position to demand adherence to the rules contained in it — rules that we have been protecting from the outside since the ’80s and before," he said.
Locklear told reporters today the convention and "customary law" set standards for military vessels’ passage through territorial waters, archipelagos and major straits.
"There are a number of countries in the world — I think China being one of them — who from our perspective place excessive claims and excessive restrictions that are not consistent with international [law] and aren’t consistent with Law of the Sea," he added.
Those restrictions, if added together and enacted, would limit international use of roughly a third of the world’s ocean area, Locklear said, and would affect every major strait and every "sea line of communication" — the primary maritime trade, logistics and naval routes between ports.
All nations concerned with shipping access will be "further at risk if these excessive claims aren’t resolved," the admiral said.
The Law of the Sea Convention could form the basis for an international forum allowing countries to express competing claims, he noted.
"Then there will have to be some compromise," he added, "because you can’t just have continually competing claims that end up causing miscalculation at some point in time, which would lead us to conflict."
Locklear said there are enough maritime resources "for everybody in the world," and competing claims should be resolved peacefully.
Responding to a question on U.S.-China military relations, the PACOM commander said he has been encouraged by the receptiveness he has seen from his Chinese counterparts.
"I look forward to continuing our dialogue and to doing some visits," he added. "I plan to visit [China] within the next several weeks, at their invitation."
That visit will involve discussions about "military claims and all of the other issues that surround that," he said.
A productive partnership between the two nations is "very important" to Asia-Pacific security, the admiral said.
"I think the good news is that … we’re in a position in the coming months and years to continue to have a productive dialogue," he added.