White House official urges Senate to ratify Law of the Sea

The treaty is key to US opposition to Beijing's vast South China Sea claims, but Washington is not a party to it.
By Alex Willemyns for RFA
White House official urges Senate to ratify Law of the Sea National Security Council Coordinator for Indo-Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell testifies during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing to examine his nomination to be Deputy Secretary of State on Capitol Hill, Thursday, Dec. 7, 2023, in Washington.
Mariam Zuhaib/AP

The U.S. Senate should ratify the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea to pressure China to comply with its rules in the South China Sea, senior White House official Kurt Campbell said Thursday.

President Joe Biden last month nominated Campbell for the role of deputy secretary of state to replace the retired Wendy Sherman.

Known as Biden’s “Asia czar,” Campbell was architect of the Obama administration’s Pivot to Asia, which sought to refocus the United States away from the Middle East, and now serves as Coordinator for Indo-Pacific Affairs on Biden’s National Security Council.

Speaking at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Campbell said he wanted the Senate to ratify the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, which governs what types of sovereignty claims countries can make to maritime areas.

The United States signed the treaty in July 1994, but the Senate never ratified it. Washington nevertheless says it abides by the treaty’s rules, and often calls on China – a full party to the treaty – to do the same, which would invalidate many of its vast South China Sea claims

But it would be easier for the United States to prosecute its case against China if the Senate removed the blurred lines, Campbell said.

“It makes it hard for other countries that we contest with, who say ‘Hey, you know, you can't hold us accountable to something that’s not your own law,’” Campbell said. “So it’s been a challenge for us.”

“Even our allies and partners say, ‘Hey, wait a second. You're holding China to account to something you yourself haven't signed up for?’” he said, adding that it would be a priority for him if confirmed. 

“We've gotten very close in the past; I'd love to get that over the finish line,” he said. “It'll be challenging. I'm committed to it.” 

Bipartisan support

Sen. Brian Schatz, a Democrat from Hawaii sitting in as the temporary chair of the committee, said he thought “we can get the votes” to ratify.

“The politics has changed, as we understand the urgent need for us to act together collectively on competition with China,” he said.

Chinese vessels gather near disputed Whitsun Reef in the South China Sea. The Philippines said Dec. 3 more than 135 Chinese vessels were "swarming" a reef off its coast, describing the boats' growing presence as "alarming." This handout photo was taken Dec. 2, 2023 and released Dec. 3 by the Philippine Coast Guard. (Handout/Philippine Coast Guard/AFP)

The committee in 2004 voted 19-0 to ratify the treaty, with support from the Bush administration, but the Senate never met for a vote due to opposition from “a small group of conservative Republicans,” according to a Politico report from the time. 

A bipartisan group of Senators has recently pushed for ratification to be reconsidered, with support from Democrats like Sen. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland and Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia and Republicans like Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Sen. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana.

During his hearing, Campbell received glowing reviews from senators from across the aisle, and promised the committee he was committed to a bipartisan approach to foreign policy if confirmed to his position. 

“I've spent an enormous amount of time with people on the Hill and on both sides of the aisle. Our best foreign policy initiatives are bipartisan, and they match the resolve of the executive and legislative branches,” he said. “I promise to take that forward.”

Popular vote

Only Sen. Jim Risch, a Republican from Idaho who serves as his party’s ranking member on the committee, expressed any criticism of Campbell – and even then it was indirect, telling him that the White House’s approach to China “is headed in the wrong direction.”

But the senators were otherwise only prepared to offer praise for the nominee, who frequently led his responses by recounting obscure details of a recent lunch, coffee or conversation they had shared.

In the case of Risch and his rare criticism, Campbell said he was grateful for his staff speaking to him “clearly and unmistakably.”

“I don't want to say that they schooled me,” Campbell said, “but I really came away with a much deeper appreciation” of Risch’s views.

Many senators were openly effusive.

Sen. Bill Hagerty, a Republican from Tennessee, said Campbell was “most helpful, most insightful” when he himself served as U.S. ambassador to Japan under the Trump administration, and told the committee he was “delighted to see Kurt here in this position.”

“The Indo-Pacific region is going to play a critical role in our world's future. It's home to 60% of the world's population, 50% of the world's GDP,” he said. “Someone with Kurt's unique insight and capability and expertise in that region, I think, is going to prove invaluable to us.” 

National Security Council Coordinator for Indo-Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell listens during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing to examine his nomination to be Deputy Secretary of State on Capitol Hill, Thursday, Dec. 7, 2023, in Washington. (Mariam Zuhaib/AP)

Campbell began a response to a question from Sen. Jeff Merkley, a Democrat from Oregon, about the Middle East by thanking him for hosting him for breakfast. He told the senator he would “make sure that your famous breakfast order is enshrined in the menu.” 

Merkley replied, without explanation, that it was called “The Trifecta.”

Not just Asia

Campbell’s only real test was the breadth of his knowledge.

Risch and Sen. Bob Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey who served as the committee’s chairman until he was charged with bribery offenses in September, noted that the deputy secretary of state position was a generalist role, not only focused on Asia.

He was accordingly grilled on Israel and Hamas, as well as on Turkey, Greece and Iran, among other countries. He told Risch, for instance, that the Biden administration would not seek to revive the nuclear deal with Iran that the Trump administration scrapped in May 2018.

Sen. Cory Booker, a Democrat from New Jersey, then attempted to stump Campbell on Africa policy, telling him most people did not “understand the emergence Africa will have in the next 50 years.”

“Even by 2050 alone,” Booker said, “they're gonna be so large that one out of every four people on the planet Earth will be African.”

Without missing a beat, Campbell replied that his dissertation had been on the Soviet Union’s foreign policy in South Africa. 

“I am actually an old Africanist – my PhD thesis at Oxford [University] was on Africa,” he said, adding it was well-received, too. “I remember I did get a call a few years ago saying, ‘Congratulations, your thesis has won an award ... [for] the book made most relevant by history.’”

The committee was clearly impressed.

Schatz told Campbell he should reply to any written questions the senators have “as quickly as possible” to wrap-up the process.

“We are trying to expedite the consideration of your nomination,” he said, “considering the importance it is to the State Department.”

Edited by Malcolm Foster.


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