The Obama administration is beginning a new push to get the U.S. Senate to approve the 1982 United Nations Law of the Sea treaty. Administration officials said the pact is necessary to protect the U.S. Navy's right to carry out exercises off the coast of China.
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told U.S. lawmakers and others meeting on the treaty Wednesday in Washington that it is time for the United States to ratify the 30-year-old pact, which sets rules on navigation and exclusive economic zones.
Panetta said the treaty will ensure that U.S. warships, commercial vessels and aircraft have access to go where needed.
"The time has come for the United States to have a seat at the table. The time has come for the United States to fully assert its role as a global leader and accede to this important treaty," Panetta said. "It is the bedrock legal instrument underpinning public order across the maritime domain. We are the only permanent member of the U.N. Security Council that is not a party to it."
The Obama administration says that ratifying the pact will protect the U.S. Navy's right to conduct exercises in waters near China, where Chinese ships in the past have harassed U.S. vessels.
China, which is a party to the treaty, claims control over its exclusive economic zone that extends about 370 kilometers from its coast and can therefore ban foreign navies from conducting exercises in the area. The United States says no such control exists beyond about 22 kilometers from the coast.
The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army General Martin Dempsey, said Washington believes that being part of the Law of the Sea treaty will help bridge international differences. "The convention gives us another tool to effectively resolve conflicts at every level. It provides a common language, and therefore a better opportunity, to settle disputes with cooperation instead of cannons," he said.
U.S. ratification of the convention has been held up over concerns among some congressional leaders who warn that the treaty threatens U.S. sovereignty and gives the United Nations too much control over oil and other mineral rights. Treaty opponents say ratifying the pact will not cause China to change its maritime claims.
The U.S. push to approve the treaty comes as the Pentagon focuses new attention on China's military buildup and its expanding influence in the Asia-Pacific region. Washington has also been paying close attention to a dispute that has been escalating between Beijing and the Philippines over an island in the South China Sea.