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Courtney Reintroduces Bipartisan House Resolution Urging Senate To Ratify United Nations Convention On The Law Of The Sea

May 19, 2017
Press Release

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Congressman Joe Courtney (CT-02), ranking member of the Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee, along with Representatives Don Young (AK-R), Adam Smith (WA-D), Susan Davis (CA-D), Rick Larsen (WA-D), Madeleine Bordallo (GU-D), John Garamendi (CA-D) and Ruben Gallego (AZ-D) reintroduced a bipartisan resolution urging the Senate to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

“Ratification of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea is critical for our national security,” said Courtney. “Given the increasing challenges we are seeing around the globe in excess maritime claims that threaten stability and commerce on the seas, the lack of US ratification of UNCLOS leaves us without a seat at the table when key decisions and rulings are made. I will continue to urge my colleagues in the Senate to ratify the convention and address our most obvious maritime double standard.”

Courtney, the ranking member of the House Seapower Subcommittee, first called for ratification of UNCLOS in a September 2015 op-ed published in Roll Call. Citing the ongoing challenge of addressing China’s excessive maritime claims in the South China Sea, as well as ongoing efforts by Russia to make claims in the Artic, Courtney argued that the United States was damaging its own economic and security interests by joining the convention.

Additional Background:

Last year, the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea issued a landmark ruling on China’s disputed claims to the South China Sea. The U.S. sought observer status to the case, but in its ruling, the Tribunal specifically stated that: “only interested States parties to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea will be admitted as observers” and denies the U.S. request. Ultimately, the court strongly rebuked China’s activities in the South China Sea, but the U.S. was not able to submit any evidence or weigh in as a friend of the court. This was particularly significant, as the U.S. controls the world’s most comprehensive sources of marine environmental data and information, and the court admitted that it lacked hydrographic data on certain claims made by the Philippines that influenced its ruling.

During a hearing of the House Armed Services Committee on February 1, Courtney questioned two of our nation’s foremost national security experts, General David H. Petraeus (USA Ret.), and Mr. John E. McLaughlin, former acting director of the CIA, about their support for ratification of UNLCOS:                                                                                                                                                    


Thank you Mr. Chairman.

And thank you to both witnesses for your thoughtful testimony today.

And I just want to go back again to Asia-Pacific. Mr. McLaughlin you raised the question about whether or not the sort of pivot militarily and Navy wise is actually taking place, I mean it actually has. We -- 12 of us last July visited RIMPAC and actually got a really good view of American leadership still in that region of the world.

Twenty-six navies deploying collaboratively and Admiral Harris, you know, was the quarterback that was running those -- those operations. The -- obviously, at that point TPP was sort of a big question mark and a big topic -- but the other was that in July, the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled against China in terms of the South China Sea claim by the Philippines and the frustration that he -- Admiral Harris -- as well as other combatant commanders in other parts of the world have expressed.

Is that our non-participation in the U.N. Law of the Sea Treaty, really does undercut our ability to tout, what really was, I think, the perfect sort of, you know, rules based international order, you know, system response to the historic rights claim that China.

I think, it's really outrageously asserted in that part of the world. And threatens international order as far as it pertains to international commerce, $5 trillion of goods flow through the South China Sea and the whole world depends on it.

So I was wondering if you would comment, in terms of whether you think we should get off the bench and become part of the process of the International Law of the Sea Treaty. And I would ask that to both witnesses.


Yes. I do think we should do that. I don't know why we haven't. There probably is some argument against it that makes sense in some quarters. But we observe the Law of the Sea, we just haven't ratified it. And I think it does get us on a lower high ground -- not on the high ground when we have these disputes.

Nonetheless, it's undeniable what China has done in the South China Sea is indefensible in terms of traditional maritime law. You know you're entitled to a certain amount of territory off of your coast, 12 miles as I recall, and what they've done by building these islands is enabled themselves to claim 90 percent of the South China Sea.

The -- the larger issue here is the one you put your finger on, that both General Petraeus and I referred to in our testimony. And that is erosion of rules that typically have governed the global order and in this case it's the freedom of the seas. We've challenged that, as you know, with our forces and that's a good thing.

It's also interesting that the Russians have done a joint exercise with the Chinese in the South China Sea, so there's a lot of competition in that part of the world for who's going to be the dominant power and if we don't defend that, we will pay in the long run because 50 percent of the world's cargo -- container cargo, goes through that channel.

China reacted badly, as you know, to the decision of the International Court. Fortunately they have not done anything aggressive in response to that, of note. But I think it's one of those ongoing nagging problems in Asia that we have to keep a constant eye on, both militarily and politically and diplomatically. And make sure that we don't turn our attention away from it.


I agree that we ought to ratify the U.N. convention on Law of the Sea and I'd expand a bit on what John was talking about, where the rebalance to Asia, the pivot, I think had a lot of good conceptual value. I think we should remember from that, that what was unhelpful at time was rhetoric that was very ringing about our rights and freedom of navigation and so forth, say the Secretary of Defense Ash Carter at the Shangri la dialogue in Singapore, and then we would wait six to eight months before we actually put a ship through the South China Sea.

And perhaps, instead of the ringing rhetoric, just take ringing actions. Again it's time for a little of the, you know, speak softly and carry a big stick.