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Reagan 200 miles at sea

The Reagan administration hopes to seize the initiative in national and international ocean policy through the proclamation of a 200-mile exclusive economic zone - a decision now under consideration at the highest levels of government. However, such haste may lay waste to the carefully balanced global consensus which emerged - reflecting United States negotiating influence protective of US national security interests - at the United Nations Law of the Sea Conference.

Objecting to a fait accompli on such a critical policy decision, some key Senate and House members have called for further study, consultations, and public hearings. Others in Congress might support a proclamation and currently support proposed legislation to create a 200-mile economic zone which differs substantially from the sea treaty. They do so, while at the same time calling for a new national ocean policy study to examine the breadth of American national and international marine policy interests.

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Why the haste? Why not implement the results of such a study rather than predetermine its findings? The real intent of a proclamation and swift conclusion of congressional action to further define such a zone is notm to assert US rights to resources that would otherwise be jeopardized by the lack of a national oceans policy. It is an attempt to commit the US to an irrevocable path outside the global Law of the Sea negotiating process.

To the surprise of some, the UN Law of the Sea Convention won unusually broad support - 117 signatories - at its signing ceremony on Dec. 10, 1982 in Jamaica. Admittedly, the treaty's provisions on the 200-mile economic zone are less than perfect, but they do represent a broad consensus on the balance of coastal state and international community rights in this zone. Not only has President Reagan stated that much of the treaty is ''consistent with US interests and, in our view, serves well the interests of all nations,'' but in January 1982 he announced that the US ''remains committed to the multilateral treaty process for reaching agreement on the law of the sea.''

Though beating a hasty retreat from continued sea law talks because of this administration's reservations on the treaty's seabed mining provisions, the US failed to accurately assess who it could count on to follow. The US did succeed, with heavy pressure, in persuading some key allies to defer signature of the Law of the Sea Convention. However, the US remains the only major state to have abandoned efforts to improve the treaty's seabed mining texts. The United Kingdom argues that ''we must try, starting with the Preparatory Commission'' to improve the treaty's mining system. As long as a number of our important allies continue to participate in the preparatory commission, the United States will not be able to demonstrate conclusively the viability of an alternative to a comprehensive oceans treaty.

The US administration contends that a unilateral proclamation of a 200-mile economic zone would be well within the current international norms but fails to note that, outside the Law of the Sea treaty, there is no consensus on the complex rights and duties of states in the zone: fisheries jurisdiction and access by foreign fishermen to surplus catch, rights of coastal states to enforce against polluting vessels as well as safeguards for ships, unimpeded navigation for fleets, controls over marine science, procedures for dispute settlement, outer limits of national jurisdiction beyond the zone and resource controls on the outer continental shelf, etc. Indeed the primary reason for US participation in the UN Conference was to set limited uniform rules for coastal state marine resource jurisdiction and sovereign rights - the most pragmatic means to protect US national security interest in global mobility and safeguard international stake in maritime trade.

By ignoring or contravening treaty provisions the US proclamation could deter other nations from prompt treaty adherence or trigger various national claims inconsistent with the treaty. In that event it could undermine the international balance of vital competing national interests encompassed in the treaty provisions which the US hopes to count on most as customary international law, rupture a fragile consensus, and set back international comity for a protracted period fraught with the potential for dispute and conflict.

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