US Bans Marine Scientific Research in its Waters Without Consent


The United States has upgraded its policy on marine scientific study, requiring overseas ships to ask permission prior to entering U.S. waters. It’s the most recent measure by Washington to align U.S. law together with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea since it attempts to champion a rules-based order despite criticism from China for not ratifying the seminar.

The U.S. State Department released a note Wednesday that overseas research vessels need advance permission by the U.S. government until they could enter and operate within the United States’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ) or continental shelf. The EEZ extends 200 nautical miles from the coast of any U.S. land.

“As a study state, the United States acknowledges the significance of [marine scientific research] and its invaluable contributions to society, and we’ll continue to ease [marine scientific research] approval,” the State Department said in a release. “The shift in coverage is consistent with international law as represented in the Law of the Sea Convention and with the custom of other coastal countries and protects American taxpayers’ interests”

It’s uncertain why the policy was changed today, however, it follows improved global scrutiny on research and survey activity in contested waters, particularly in regions such as the South China Sea — a zone of developing controversy between the U.S. and China.

Washington accuses Beijing of violating international law by asserting nearly the entirety of the sea on the grounds of so-called”historical rights,” regardless of the overlapping claims of its neighbors in Southeast Asia.

China has regularly hit back in U.S. complaint of Chinese behavior in the South China Sea by pointing outside that the U.S. Senate hasn’t ratified the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, or UNCLOS, and is consequently not a part of this conference, whereas China is.

Greg Poling, a senior fellow for Southeast Asia in the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the U.S. policy change was a indication of it placing its own national laws further in accord with UNCLOS.

Poling noted that throughout the years-long discussions over the Last text of UNCLOS, that had been finished 1982, the U.S. really fought those Areas of the conference that demanded permission beforehand before any nation performed marine scientific research in the waters of the other.    

“The U.S. thought that marine science away from the territorial sea ought to be unfettered,” he explained. The territorial sea identifies this 12 nautical mile border off a country’s shores. “This was reflective of this fairly substantial voice that marine scientists had been awarded from the U.S. negotiating group as well as the interagency taskforce that coordinated U.S. regulation of the sea coverage ”

The U.S. finally lost this argument, but not ratified UNCLOS anyway.

File photo of US Navy oceanographic survey ship USNS Bruce C. Heezen anchored at Da Nang, Vietnam.

China Launches Naval Exercise in South China Sea

Continuous encroachments

China operates the largest fleet of government-owned study and research vessels from the world, and has stoked diplomatic worries by routinely sending ships to the EEZs of neighboring Southeast Asian countries.

The installation of two these poll ships in Reed Bank, a underwater feature in the South China Sea disputed between China and the Philippines, motivated the Philippines to submit a diplomatic protest to Beijing in mid-August. Ship-tracking data demonstrates that despite this demonstration, China’s research fleet nevertheless frequently intrudes into Philippine waters.

Sometimes, China’s poll ships have traveled over 30 nautical miles of U.S. lands in the Pacific, for example Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands, according to a report from the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative.

However, such actions by China aren’t necessarily prohibited under the policy.

As stated by the U.S. Office of Ocean and Polar Affairs, marine scientific study simply includes”those actions undertaken from the sea to expand understanding of the marine environment and its procedures.”

Hydrographic polls — such as those for military functions — and source investigation, which China’s research fleet is famous for, are rather considered”marine data group,” and thus Aren’t affected under the updated coverage.  

Instead, it points to a wider shift and nearer embrace of provisions of UNCLOS from Washington.

US shift of posture

The U.S. officially altered its position on marine claims in the South China Sea in early July, aligning its own standing with that of a landmark 2016 mediation award by a case brought from the Philippines from China that chose China’s claims to the disputed waters were inconsistent with UNCLOS.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo underscored that standing at a speech Friday to Association of Southeast Asians (ASEAN), which had printed a joint communique stressing the significance of UNCLOS in directing behavior and settling disputes in the South China Sea a day before.  

Poling considers the time is ripe for the U.S. to take the larger step of ratifying UNCLOS, however, concedes the odds of that occurring are bad, short of big shift in the national political landscape at the U.S.. Many Republican lawmakers, specifically, believe accession to such conventions a breach of national sovereignty.

“It’s certainly time for the U.S. to ratify UNCLOS,” Poling said. “However, it’s improbable without a majority in the Senate along with a concerted drive in the White House. A loudly wing of the Republican Party isn’t interested in something using the phrase’United Nations’ connected to it, however significant for US national interests,” he explained.


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