Military.com By Bryant Jordan December 11, 2007
The U.S. is not about to go to war with Canada over the possibility our northern neighbor will bar liquid natural gas tanker ships from passing through Canadian waters to New England -- a restriction that would impose a severe hardship on the region.
Nor is the administration going to invade Australia, even though our down-under ally demands the right to put an Aussie pilot aboard any ship -- including American -- passing through the Torres Straits running between the island continent and Papua New Guinea.
But with the U.S. facing these prospects the only way to resolve them is by the country signing onto the Law of the Sea Treaty, which 155 countries already have joined, according to Navy Capt. Patrick J. Neher, director of the Navy’s International and Operational Law Office of the Judge Advocate General.
"This is pretty serious stuff," Neher said during an interview with military bloggers Dec. 10. He said Australia is asserting a regulatory right over the waterway improperly, and threatens that any violator is subject to arrest and their ship held.
"Now we're not going to roll the 7th Fleet into Sydney Harbor to compel Australia to roll back their illegal [regulation]," he said. "But what we can do if we were party to the [treaty] is use the dispute resolution process ... and I'm confident we would win."
Same with Canada's plans to keep American LNG tankers from passing through Head Harbor Passage en route to Maine, said Coast Guard Capt. Charles D. Michel, chief of the Office of Maritime and International Law.
Diplomacy hasn't worked, he said, noting that the Canadian prime minister reportedly "blew off President Bush" when he weighed in to resolve the problem, and it's highly unlikely the U.S. will use military force against Canada.
That leaves dispute resolution, which is part of the Law of the Sea Treaty, he said.
According to a Navy story on the Law of the Sea Treaty, the agreement was negotiated between 1973 and 1982 in order to update the customary law of the sea that dates from the 1600s. The U.S. helped bring about the treaty but has never signed onto it because of concerns it would be giving up sovereignty or losing rights it has long held under the historical, customary law.
According to Neher, however, the U.S. stands to lose its role as a leader in determining sea law by not joining in the treaty.
"There is a fundamental disconnect [in] trying to lead an alliance of nations to maintain public order on the world's oceans when you're one of the handful of countries … that aren't parties to that convention," he said.
The Defense Department has come out squarely in favor of the U.S. joining the treaty, which Neher and Michel said guarantees right of passage through some of the most strategic areas. In June, the Joint Chiefs of Staff wrote to the Senate, urging it to support the treaty.
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