Top defense leaders argued Wednesday for the U.S. to ratify a long-debated treaty governing ocean rights in order to bolster the nation's national security interests in the Asia-Pacific region and other key global waters.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said approving the United Nations Law of the Sea treaty will strengthen America's strategic position in Asia.
"The western Pacific is a mosaic of competing claims for territory and for resources," Dempsey said during a forum hosted by the Atlantic Council and the Pew Charitable Trusts. "This is a critical region where, as a Pacific nation, our security and economic prosperity are inextricably linked. We have a vested interest in mitigating any conflict in the Asia-Pacific before it occurs."
The U.S. is the only major nation that has refused to sign the treaty, which has been endorsed by 161 countries and the European Union.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta dismissed objections from treaty opponents who claim that it would restrict military operations or limit intelligence collection in territorial waters.
The opponents, he said, "have put forward the myth that the Law of the Sea Convention would force us to surrender U.S. sovereignty. Nothing, nothing, could be further from the truth. Not since we acquired the lands of the American West and Alaska have we had such a great opportunity to expand U.S. sovereignty."
Panetta added that signing onto the treaty would help enforce sea lanes, including the Strait of Hormuz, which Iran has threatened to block.
"We are determined to preserve freedom of transit there in the face of Iranian threats to impose a blockade," said Panetta, even as U.S. ships continue to travel through the Strait in part to show that the U.S. will not tolerate any effort to restrict travel there. Ratifying the treaty, Panetta added, would "help strengthen worldwide transit passage rights under international law and isolate Iran as one of the few remaining non-parties to the convention."
Military leaders have also noted that the treaty is becoming more critical as nations compete for new shipping routes and natural resources in the Arctic, where the receding ice is opening sea lanes to more traffic.
A number of Republican senators oppose the pact.
So far, two dozen senators have signed a letter being circulated by Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., vowing to oppose the treaty if it gets to the Senate for a vote.
The senators said in the letter that that "are particularly concerned that United States sovereignty could be subjugated in many areas" to an authority representing various countries. The letter is to be sent to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is expected to have a hearing on the matter, and Panetta is slated to testify.
Jodi Seth, spokesperson for Sen. John Kerry, the panel chairman, said Wednesday that there are many new members of the Senate.
"Reliably conservative-minded businesses and notable Republican national security experts have urged action to protect America's interests. The unlikely allies who support the Treaty make a powerfully persuasive case," said Seth.
The treaty regulates the ocean's use for military, transportation and mineral extraction purposes and it recognizes sovereign rights over a country's continental shelf out to 200 nautical miles and beyond if a country can substantiate its claims.
The Bush and Obama administrations have supported the pact, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has spoken several times about its importance.