On January 2, 2024, the European Security & Defense magazine published an article by Hans-Uwe Mergener (retired German Navy captain), which discusses the US declaration of its extended continental shelf (that extends beyond 200 nautical miles from the coastline) in December 2023.  

The editorial opened up several debates about the US’ motives, as well as the political and legal consequences of this action. 

Debates Surrounding the US Declaring Extended Continental Shelf

1/ What are the intentions of the US?

The author claimed that the main motive for the US is the economic benefits from resources, namely oil, gas, lithium and rare-earth elements, etc. This argument is justifiable, especially as climate change is melting ice in the Arctic, making it possible to tap into the resources in the seabed - which the US is technologically capable of.

However, the author has yet to discuss America’s political motivation, which includes the competition with China in terms of natural resources. In 2023, China restricted the export of minerals used in semiconductor production and aerospace technologies (gallium and germanium) to the US. The Biden administration has also been following the strategy of “economic decoupling”, later changed to “derisking” with China. The declaration of extended continental shelf may give the US a legal basis to pursue an independent and long-term resource policy.  

2/ Is the US non-participation in UNCLOS a barrier or an advantage?

The author said that the US not ratifying the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) is an advantage since by doing so, the US does not have to face any time constraint. Under UNCLOS, a coastal state must submit its declaration of the extended continental shelf to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) within ten years from the date on which that state is bound by UNCLOS. The US even leaves open the possibility of further enlargement of its continental shelf claims in the future, 

However, the non-party status may also pose a barrier for the US, as its claims may be challenged by many other UNCLOS member states. In fact, Russia has already criticized this move as a unilateral measure and a violation of international law. 

3/ Will the US external relations be affected?

The author claimed that this is by far the US’ biggest attempt to draw a trans-continental map, and this extension of the US continental shelf will affect its relations with at least six nations (Bahamas, Canada, Cuba, Japan, Mexico and Russia). 

However, the political ramifications may be even broader. Cooperation within the Arctic Council (which consists of eight countries) may be hindered since the Council’s main function concerns the Arctic Ocean. On a large scale, in the competition with Russia or China in other areas like Europe or the Pacific Ocean, the Biden administration usually emphasized the term “rule-based order” to rally international support, but this action may be perceived as contradictory to the  “rule-based order”. 

An original version of the article was published here.

Translated by Trieu Khanh

Edited by Hoang Do