STATE DEPARTMENT— U.S. President Barack Obama says a U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea would help ease tensions in the South China Sea if is ratified by U.S. lawmakers
China is facing a series of maritime disputes with its neighbors in the South China Sea.
Speaking to Army Cadets at West Point, President Obama says it's more difficult for the U.S. push for a resolution of rival claims because it exempts itself from rules that apply to everyone else.
"It’s a lot harder to call on China to resolve its maritime disputes under the Law of the Sea Convention when the United States Senate has refused to ratify it - despite the repeated insistence of our top military leaders that the treaty advances our national security," he said. "That’s not leadership; that’s retreat."
The U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea -- or UNCLOS -- establishes rules for commercial and military shipping as well as the distribution of offshore oil and gas royalties.
That has made it a target for the president's opponents, including former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
"I do not believe the United States should endorse a treaty that makes it a legal obligation for productive countries to pay royalties to less-productive countries based on rhetoric about common heritage of mankind," he said.
While not ratified by the Senate, the United States does observe most of the structures of the Law of the Sea treaty.
"I think the president was making a false choice," said American Enterprise Institute analyst Michael Auslin. "He was saying if we don't ratify UNCLOS, we can't call China to account for any of its provocative, coercive, and aggressive behavior. That's completely false. Of course we can."
The latest flare-up in the South China Sea concerns a Chinese oil rig in disputed waters off Vietnam - a standoff that Chinese Deputy Army Chief Wang Guangzhong says is being forced on Beijing.
"China, in its issues concerning territorial sovereignty and maritime rights, has never taken the first step to provoke trouble," he said. "It has always been that China has been forced to respond."
Vietnamese protesters say Beijing is trying to provoke wider confrontation over disputed islands.
American University professor Hillary Mann Leverett says Beijing is trying to undermine U.S. alliances in Asia.
"The way China has done that is to push these allies over issues that the United States doesn't really care about -- a craggy island here, a craggy island there," she said. "Why should the United States really send the 7th Fleet out to fight China over these various islands?"
U.S. reluctance to confront China has nothing to do with the Law of the Sea, says Auslin.
"I think it shows a very disturbing trend line in the Obama administration of trying to find excuses for not getting more involved in the maritime and naval disputes that are roiling Asia," he said.
The Philippines is using Law-of-the-Sea mechanisms to challenge China's territorial claims, but China is refusing to join that non-binding tribunal.