Washington’s failure to ratify the Law of the Sea Convention puts the US military at increasing risk of confrontation with rising powers like China, US officials said on Wednesday as US President Barack Obama’s administration began a new push to join the 30-year-old treaty.
Senior US defense officials told the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee that without the treaty, the US military is forced to base rights of navigation around the globe on customary international law, or long-standing practice, which is subject to differing interpretations.
“If we do not ratify over time, what would happen is that we put ourselves at risk of confrontation with others who are interpreting customary international law to their own benefit,” US Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Martin Dempsey said.
“If we are not a party to this treaty and can’t deal with it at the [negotiating] table, then we have to deal with it at sea with our naval power,” US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said. “And once that happens, you clearly increase the risk of confrontation.”
The 1982 treaty, which has been ratified by more than 160 countries, establishes 12-nautical-mile (22km) territorial seas around coastal countries, but ensures rights of navigation and overflight by other states. Twice in the past decade the treaty was voted out of committee, but never made it to a vote by the full US senate.
Opponents of the treaty are concerned it would cede US sovereignty to an international organization that would have the power to collect royalties on oil and mineral exploitation and use the funds to help poorer countries.
Panetta and US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told the panel the convention would bring huge economic and military benefits to the country. However, the issue quickly ran into the same objections that have stymied its passage since the mid-1990s.
“My problem is with sovereignty,” US Senator Jim Risch said, flipping through the pages of the treaty. “There’s 288 pages here, and as you read it, there’s some good stuff in here, but if we have to give up one scintilla of sovereignty that this country has fought, has bled for ... I can’t vote for it.”
Proponents say the benefits far outweigh any drawbacks, citing support by groups as diverse as the US Chamber of Commerce, Greenpeace, members of the oil and gas industry, top US military officials and recent Republican and Democratic administrations.
The accord creates 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zones that give coastal states rights of development and exploitation of natural resources, but protect the ability of other countries to navigate, overfly and lay communications cables across the regions.
The treaty also grants countries rights to continental shelf regions beyond the 200 mile economic zones.
Because of its extensive coastal regions, the US stands to benefit more than other countries by joining the treaty, proponents say. It would extend US sovereignty to vast areas of the ocean, while putting the military’s worldwide rights of navigation on firmer legal footing.
Lawmakers and defense officials said the treaty would strengthen the military’s hand in dealing with growing powers like China and Russia and others that have joined the convention and are seeking to establish claims in the Pacific and Arctic.