Call to US Congress to ratify UN sea law pact

Top diplomat says this will help protect US interests

TOP United States diplomat for Asia Daniel Russel has urged US lawmakers to ratify the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos), saying doing so would help safeguard US interests and provide credibility when Washington speaks out on international maritime issues.

His remarks on Wednesday to Congress came as the US is taking a tough stance towards China's reclamation works in the South China Sea in disputed areas. These works, including artificial islands large enough to accommodate military airstrips, are escalating tension in the South-east Asian region.

China has overlapping claims over territory in the disputed waters with Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.

Mr Russel told the lawmakers that China was "eroding trust" and threatening "peace, security and stability" in Asia. He added that acceding to Unclos would "help safeguard US national security interests and provide additional credibility to US efforts to hold other countries accountable to their obligations under this vitally important treaty".

Earlier on Wednesday, a State Department official told Reuters that Secretary of State John Kerry would leave China "in absolutely no doubt" about Washington's commitment to ensuring freedom of navigation and flight in the South China Sea when he visits Beijing this weekend. This followed reports a day earlier that the Pentagon is considering sending military aircraft and ships to the disputed area.

Mr Kerry's visit is meant to lay the ground for the annual US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue next month in Washington and President Xi Jinping's trip to the US expected in September.

Mr Russel on Wednesday also said it was important for the US to shine a spotlight on "problematic behaviour" to ensure that it is "exposed and censured, if not stopped". Such posturing by senior officials prior to high-level bilateral visits has - on numerous occasions - taken the heat off top US leaders, relieving them from having to make public attacks on contentious issues.

Yet, the irony remains that while the US promotes the importance of using legal dispute settlement mechanisms such as Unclos for territorial and maritime disputes, it is one of the few countries that have yet to accede to the convention. Legal experts say this often makes it difficult for the US to point the finger at others, like China and Russia, when they fail to comply with international laws.

Mr Russel made a case for the maritime law, saying it is "supported by US military, by industry, environmental groups and other stakeholders".

But his words may have fallen on deaf ears yet again. Law professor Craig Allen of the University of Washington said the issue has been discussed by the leaders of Congress three times and "has fallen short of the votes". He said one sticking point is the compulsory dispute settlement clause which countries like Russia and China have ignored.

"It looks like the countries the US would have disputes with are ignoring the process," he said, adding that this diminished the popularity of Unclos among US lawmakers.

simlinoi@sph.com.sg