By David Alexander
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. Navy surveillance vessel stumbled into a nerve-racking confrontation with five Chinese ships in 2009 while conducting ocean mapping operations in the South China Sea.
Chinese ships bent on enforcing Beijing's expansive view of its rights under the Law of the Sea Treaty tried to snare the USNS Impeccable's towed sonars with a grappling hook, U.S. officials said.
Some of the vessels darted into the Impeccable's path, forcing the unarmed civilian crew to take emergency evasive action to avoid collision, they said.
When the United States protested the dangerous actions and insisted that China was asserting maritime rights far in excess of those conferred by the 1982 treaty, Beijing's response was right to the point.
"They had a perfect reply," said Myron Nordquist, associate director of the Center for Oceans Law and Policy at the University of Virginia. "Who is the U.S. to come and tell us to abide by a treaty to which you are not a party?"
Thirty years after the global community negotiated the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, the Obama administration, backed by senior military officials and business leaders, is making a new push to win U.S. Senate ratification of the treaty.
Supporters say the agreement would vastly expand U.S. control of resource-rich maritime regions off the coastal United States and give the military firmer footing to assert rights of navigation and overflight around the world.
"It's urgent that we move on this because American economic interests are very much at stake," said Senator John Kerry, head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which takes up the treaty on Wednesday for the first time in five years.
"Other nations are moving to stake claims and to assert sovereignty in places that they perhaps shouldn't," he said, "and the United States needs to get off the dime and protect its economic interests."
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testify before the committee on Wednesday at the start of several months of hearings that Kerry said he believed would eventually lead lawmakers to ratify the treaty.
But critics, who have succeeded in blocking the accord since it first came to the Senate in the mid-1990s, said the United States stands to gain little beyond what it can already claim, while ceding some of its sovereignty to an international organization.
"When you view the pros and cons of the treaty, when you do the cost benefit analysis, the costs, the real costs are provable and supported by facts and law and logic whereas the supposed benefits are fairly conjectural," said Steven Groves, an analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank.
He said the treaty would expose the United States to lawsuits and siphon off billions of dollars in royalty payments to fund the bureaucracy associated with the convention.
But Kerry dismissed much of the criticism of the accord as "mythology" and said the treaty carried "enormous benefits." He said companies had told him they would not invest in seabed mining unless the treaty was ratified.
"We have major economic interests in various parts of the ocean," he said. "We can't lay a claim to them and protect them under the Law of the Sea because we're not a party to the Law of the Sea."
The treaty, which originated in negotiations in the 1950s, established 12 nautical mile territorial seas, as well as rights of navigation and overflight.
It also created 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zones that give the coastal states rights of development and exploitation of natural resources but ensure other countries the right of transit and overflight.
HOLDOUTS INCLUDE NORTH KOREA, IRAN
The agreement has been ratified by 162 countries, including all permanent members of the U.N. Security Council except the United States. Other countries that have yet to join the treaty include North Korea, Venezuela, Syria and Iran.
Proponents say the United States, because of its extensive coastline and large navy, stands to benefit more than most other countries by joining the treaty.
It would bring vast areas of the ocean under recognized U.S. control, and put the military's worldwide rights of transit and overflight on more stable legal ground, officials said.
"Treaty law makes the firmest legal foundation upon which to base our global presence - on, above and below the seas," Panetta told a recent forum.
The defense secretary also underscored the importance of the treaty in the context of the Pentagon's shift in strategic focus to the western Pacific, East Asia and Indian Ocean.
"By not acceding to the convention, we give up the strongest legal footing for our actions," Panetta said. "How can we argue that other nations must abide by international rules when we haven't officially accepted those rules ourselves?"
Kerry said the treaty could help resolve differences in maritime disputes in the Asia-Pacific before violence erupts.
"The United States will remain the world's pre-eminent power, but you don't want to resort to gunboat diplomacy for every issue," he said. "You'd like to have legal resources available to you. And this treaty gives it to you."
(Editing by Mohammad Zargham)