By David Alexander
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Washington's failure to ratify the Law of the Sea Convention puts the U.S. military at increasing risk of confrontation with rising powers like China, U.S. officials said on Wednesday as the Obama administration began a new push to join the 30-year-old treaty.
Senior defense officials told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that without the treaty, the U.S. 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," said General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
"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," Defense Secretary 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 (22-km) 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 U.S. Senate.
Opponents of the treaty are concerned it would cede U.S. 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 Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the panel the convention would bring huge economic and military benefits to the country. But the issue quickly ran into the same objections that have stymied its passage since the mid-1990s.
"My problem is with sovereignty," Republican 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 Chamber of Commerce, Greenpeace, members of the oil and gas industry, top U.S. military officials and recent Republican and Democratic administrations.
'IMMEDIATE BOOST TO U.S. CREDIBILITY'
The accord creates 200-nautical-mile (370-km) 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 United States stands to benefit more than other countries by joining the treaty, proponents say. It would extend U.S. sovereignty to vast areas of the ocean, while putting the military's worldwide rights of navigation or 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.
"China and other countries are staking out illegal claims in the South China Sea and elsewhere," said Democratic Senator John Kerry, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.
"Becoming a party to the treaty would give an immediate boost to U.S. credibility as we push back against excessive maritime claims and illegal restrictions on our warships or commercial vessels," he said.
China claims rights over most of the South China Sea, which has led to confrontations with the Philippines, Vietnam and other countries bordering the waterway.
The U.S. military has had repeated run-ins in the region with Chinese vessels and aircraft asserting their sovereignty, including a midair collision in 2001 that killed a Chinese jet pilot and forced a U.S. Navy reconnaissance plane to make an emergency landing on China's Hainan Island.
(Reporting by David Alexander; Editing by Peter Cooney)