China maintains that UNCLOS prohibits foreign military operations within its EEZ, but the treaty contains no such language. It does, however, give coastal states jurisdiction over scientific research in their EEZs. The 2002 Surveying and Mapping Law of the People’s Republic of China has defined mapping and surveying so broadly as to claim that they constitute research. China asserts that military surveillance and reconnaissance is scientific research per the 2002 law, and thus argues that regulating them is justified since UNCLOS grants countries control rights over scientific research. This is indeed a bold stretch. Yet, if left unchecked, China undoubtedly will continue to interpret UNCLOS provisions in its own interests. As a result, the United States must challenge China on these matters and not allow it to shape the law of the sea in its favor. If we are not a party to the treaty, however, we have no influence over how the law develops. By ratifying UNCLOS, we create the best chance that the law of the sea develops in a manner aligned with our national interests and those of our allies.
China seeks to use UNCLOS’s EEZ provisions to marginalize U.S. influence in the region, because China prefers one-on-one dealings with its smaller neighbors. Those neighbors, on the other hand, favor multilateral negotiations that better balance China’s greater power. The smaller ones often welcome U.S. involvement, since many view us as a friend. However, they also recognize that our interests at times may differ from theirs. Therefore, they seek assurances that the United States can provide a strong balance to China’s growing power without threatening their affairs. Since they all are parties to UNCLOS, they would receive such assurances by our conformance with the treaty’s principles. Ratifying UNCLOS, then, sends a clear message that we intend to be a dedicated partner in forging their regional futures.
UNCLOS treats EEZs as international waters. As long as the United States aggressively and repeatedly asserts this fundamental fact, we need not fear constraint of our naval forces. Ratifying UNCLOS only bolsters this argument in our favor. Furthermore, it affords us more influence in shaping its provisions and makes us a more persuasive partner on behalf of China’s neighbors. As a result, we more effectively restrain China’s territorial aspirations in the South China Sea. Per Secretary Panetta, “The time has come for the United States to have a seat at the table. The time has come for the United States to fully assert its role as a global leader and accede to this important treaty.”