Treaty regulates ocean resources and uses; U.S. only Arctic nation that hasn't signed
The military's senior leaders are ramping up efforts to convince the senators to ratify the Law of the Sea Convention.
With a defense strategy that emphasizes the Asia-Pacific region and the increasing importance of the Arctic, they argue the time is right to join the United Nations treaty that regulates the resources of the sea and uses of the ocean.
The vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and leaders of the Navy, Coast Guard and three military commands this month told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that joining would strengthen America's position around the world.
Adm. Robert J. Papp Jr., Coast Guard commandant, said in an interview that it's "well past" time to ratify the treaty and lock in the rights it sets forth.
Of the eight Arctic nations, only the United States is not a party to the convention. Other countries with Arctic coastlines are charting the continental shelves to make claims under the treaty to increase their rights to the oil and gas reserves that lie beneath the Arctic waters.
In some places, the zone where the United States controls the undersea resources could be extended from 200 nautical miles off the coast to 600 miles, Papp said.
"The only way to do that is to work through the convention," said Papp, who called the ability to make such a claim "a big deal for the U.S."
Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., chairman of the foreign relations committee, has called the case for ratification "clear and compelling," but has been reluctant to bring it to a vote until after the election.
Some Republican senators oppose joining, saying the treaty would undermine U.S. sovereignty. Both of Connecticut's Democratic senators, Joe Lieberman and Richard Blumenthal, support it.
Blumenthal called the treaty a "powerful strategic win for the United States."
"The Law of the Sea will be helpful all over the world but especially as we prioritize Pacific operations," he said. "And particularly for a state like Connecticut, which builds submarines and supports the Navy so effectively, the Law of the Sea will be advantageous."
Leon Panetta became the first secretary of defense to testify as to the military's support of the treaty before the Senate committee in May.
By not being one of the 162 parties to the convention, the United States is at a "distinct disadvantage" in disputes over maritime rights and responsibilities, Panetta said in his statement. The treaty "provides the stable, recognized legal regime we need to conduct our global operations today."
Under Secretary of the Navy Robert O. Work said in an interview the treaty now is "much more central to what our national security strategy is asking us to do."
In talking with his colleagues, Blumenthal said, he's hearing more and more that the treaty will enhance the military's power.
"I think we're on the cusp of a strong consensus because of the timing and the recognition that ratification is important to American interests in the Pacific," he said.
Papp also seemed optimistic.
"There may be some hope after the election, when people are not so focused on the politics of it," he said. "Perhaps we'll get some reasonable people together and try to do what's right for the country."