WASHINGTON — US defense chiefs appealed Wednesday for lawmakers to ratify the UN convention on the law of sea, saying the country was at a disadvantage because of the Senate’s refusal to back the accord.
The UN convention governing maritime rights entered into force in 1994 but despite support from successive American presidents from both parties, the US Senate has never ratified the treaty, which requires a two-thirds majority.
A small faction of conservative Republicans oppose the agreement, arguing it could undermine US legal authority over oil and gas resources in the continental shelf.
But Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said in a speech that ratification “has broad support among major US industries, including offshore energy, shipbuilding, commercial shipping, and communications companies.”
The companies see the treaty as providing legal certainty and “the same is true for national security,” Panetta told a conference organized by the Atlantic Council and the Pew Charitable Trusts.
Panetta was joined by the US military’s top officer, General Martin Dempsey, who also argued that the convention would “strengthen our strategic position in Asia.”
Pentagon officials see the treaty as crucial given a renewed US focus on naval power and the Asia-Pacific region. With China’s more assertive stance in the South China Sea, US officials believe the convention will enable US warships to continue to operate in the Pacific and hold exercises.
By backing the convention, the United States would “ensure that our rights are not whittled away by the excessive claims and erroneous interpretations of others,” said Panetta, apparently referring to China’s maritime disputes with other Asian states.
By opposing the treaty, the United States potentially undermines its “credibility” in Asia “just as we’re pushing for a rules-based order in the region and the peaceful resolution of maritime and territorial disputes in the South China Sea and elsewhere,” he said.
“How can we argue that other nations must abide by international rules when we haven’t officially accepted those rules ourselves?”
Panetta also said the treaty would bolster US efforts to ensure vital shipping lanes stay open to commerce, especially the Strait of Hormuz, which Tehran has threatened to shut down in retaliation for sanctions.
“US accession to the convention would help strengthen worldwide transit passage rights under international law and isolate Iran as one of the few remaining non-parties to the convention,” he said.
General Dempsey said without the treaty, the United States would have to continue to rely on customary international law for any maritime disputes, creating a higher risk of potential conflict.
Customary law “plays into the hands of foreign states that, over time, want to bend customary law to restrict movement on the oceans.
“And, it puts our warships and aircraft ‘on point’ to constantly challenge claims.”
Apart from national security considerations, Panetta said the treaty would dramatically expand the country’s legal and economic jurisdiction over 200 nautical miles off the US coasts as well as a continental shelf beyond that zone.