Two Cents: The September-October PF Topic Wordings

Did you think Two Cents was done? Heck no! This month, we polled the reigning TOC Champions Anika Sridhar and Jay Garg of Newton South for their Two Cents on the Septober topics!

Here are the NSDA’s topic choices:
OPTION 1 – Resolved: The United States should accede to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea without reservations.

OPTION 2 – Resolved: The United States should end its arms sales to Taiwan.

Anika Sridhar

Anika Sridhar is a rising senior at Newton South High, in Newton, Massachusetts, where she currently serves as a captain of the debate team. Thus far, Anika has amassed 7 bids to the Tournament of Champions, winning the TOC her junior year. She has also championed Lexington, Manchester, and MA States, and has reached finals at Yale.

My biggest problem with the first topic is its wording. The last phrase, “without reservations,” is incredibly vague and does not adequately establish the grounds for debate, particularly for neg. To what extent can the US protest the Law of the Sea Convention in a con world? The resolution doesn’t specify whether neg teams are supposed to defend only the problems the US has already outlined with the Law of the Sea convention, or whether neg teams have the ability to point to whichever section they disapprove of in the agreement and argue that the US should have reservations regarding that article. That being said, the Law of the Sea Convention is an incredibly long agreement that I don’t think most teams are going to fully read in depth. Because of this, I believe the debates will likely follow the former interpretation of “reservations,” with neg teams defending the parts of the agreement the US currently has reservations about. Another possibility is that the uncertainty regarding the meaning of the resolution will drive teams to select perceptual, bigger-picture arguments, like whether US adherence to UN law in general has the ability to alter international relations because of perceived cooperation and teamwork. While I am not a fan of the wording, I do believe that these debates will be both equally balanced and high-level, since there is good literature on both sides.

Final Grade: B+

The second topic is less interesting and educational than the first option. The biggest, if not only, arguments on this topic will just be multiple links into of Chinese appeasement, a point that rapidly overtook last year’s Septober topic. Both sides will probably agree that curbing Chinese aggression is the most important issue, with pro arguing that arming Taiwan helps keep China in check and con arguing that arming Taiwan merely forces China to engage in an arms build up. These arguments seem limited in impact-level debates, a level of debate that is critical for new novice debaters whose first introduction to debate will likely be this topic. The links are also limited in number and intricacy, setting the stage for really repetitive debates. What worries me the most is that this lack of nuance may ultimately force judges to evaluate random empirics that teams bring up, which teams can just arbitrarily link to the trade of arms. Debaters will likely create a timeline of Chinese aggression and a timeline of US arms sales to Taiwan and somehow draw a correlation between the two. This was largely the strategy used on last year’s Septober debater, with many debaters, myself included, linking different THAAD developments to completely unrelated acts of aggression taken by China and North Korea. While the US armament of Taiwan may be more relevant to politics in the area than THAAD, the same kind of ridiculous extrapolation is likely to occur with this topic.

Final Grade: B-

Jay Garg

Jay Garg is a rising senior at Newton South High School, where he is a public forum captain and fourth year debater. He has placed first at the Tim Averill Invitational, Lexington Winter Invitational, Massachusetts State Tournament, and Tournament of Champions. He also placed second at the Yale Invitational and quarter-finaled NCFL Grand Nationals.

While looking at the the first resolution, I resorted to google to determine the exact meanings of three critical words and phrases. Accede — to assent to a treaty. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) — a treaty that establishes the responsibilities of a nation regarding the protection of marine environments, the range of ocean in which a country can exploit maritime resources, and the territorial limits of nations. Without Reservations — many UN treaties allow reservations, a policy decision that permits a country to comply with only parts of a treaty if it a condition or clause is unpalatable. Thus, using the words “without reservations” clarifies the action of accession: the United States would be subject to every requirement of the treaty.

There are a number of arguments that this treaty presents. Regulations in the treaty may be beneficial to American environmental interests, but those regulations carry negative consequences for American corporations. The treaty also grants executive power regarding naval boundaries to the United Nations, potentially clarifying contentious boundaries, but also creating the potential for a loss of American resources and control. Acceding to the treaty would improve American moral standing and give us a voice in UN proceedings regarding the rules of the sea, yet it may also oblige the US to assist with the transfer of sensitive technology to other states and to submit to UN revenue redistribution. I worry that this topic opens the door for some hyper-specific, obscure arguments that lead to non-productive debates; however this topic also touches on a number of important topics regarding the role America should play in global politics, policing, environmental reform, and trade.

Final Grade: B+

The shorter of the two topics, Option 2 asks whether “The United States should end its arms sales to Taiwan,” arms sales that have existed since the late 1970s. Like the Okinawa topic from two years ago and last year’s missile defense topic, this resolution will force debaters to examine the relationships between a number of geopolitical actors. Because arms sales to Taiwan are a clear symbol of US commitment to Taiwanese sovereignty and provide a military presence for the United States within China’s sphere of influence, they have traditionally upset the PRC. Consequently, ending arms sales may placify the PRC, opening the door for Sino-US cooperation in Southeast Asia, or it may cause other US allies in the region to fear waning US commitment to their security. Withholding military technologies from Taiwan may force Taiwan to the negotiating table with China, or it could incentivize China to go to war with a weaker Taiwan. While the debate— at least initially— seems to focus on Sino-Taiwanese relations, there are likely significant impacts to Chinese involvement in preventing North Korean aggression, US and Chinese internal politics, and global trade.

Here’s my problem with this resolution: although they carry importance as a symbol, I doubt that US arms sales to Taiwan are truly a causal factor in China’s willingness to go to war, cut off trade relations with the United States, or act more or less aggressively in any tangible way. The protection of the United States exists with or without an additional airplane in the region, and so I worry that this topic opens the door for unproductive debates about nuclear wars that will never happen or a collapse of the global economy that will never take place, especially not because of a couple billion dollars in annual arms sales.

Final Grade: B

What are your thoughts on these topics? Let us know by leaving a comment below!