Obama administration officials pushed for the U.S. to join a 30-year-old international treaty that they say is now essential to counter China and maintain influence in Asia, while Republican critics say it would undermine U.S. sovereignty.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Martin Dempsey, testifying today before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, urged lawmakers to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
The treaty was signed in 1994 by President Bill Clinton and subsequently endorsed by President George W. Bush. It has twice failed to win Senate ratification due to conservative opposition, which portrayed it as eroding U.S. sovereignty.
“I am well aware that this treaty does have determined opposition, limited but nevertheless quite vociferous,” Clinton told the committee. “And it’s unfortunate because it’s opposition based in ideology and mythology, not in facts, evidence, or the consequences of our continuing failure to accede to the treaty.”
Panetta said the treaty doesn’t affect U.S. sovereignty and that ratification is crucial for American security interests.
They made their arguments against a backdrop of Washington’s political personalities.
Democrats will soon lose a prominent Republican advocate with the departure of Indiana Senator Richard Lugar, who was defeated in his primary race. Lugar has sought ratification of the treaty for years in defiance of Senate Republican leaders, and the push now is something of a swan song for the six-term lawmaker.
Waiting ‘Too Long’
The issue also provides a chance for Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry of Massachusetts, a contender to become secretary of state if President Barack Obama wins re-election, to try to deliver for the administration.
And for Clinton, today’s hearing recalls her confirmation hearing before the Senate panel on Jan. 13, 2009, when she said ratification would be an administration priority. The treaty has languished since then, and the next six months are her last chance to achieve that goal. Clinton has said she will step down when Obama’s current term ends.
“It’s urgent that this treaty be ratified,” Kerry said in a telephone interview yesterday, outlining economic and strategic reasons why the U.S. should join more than 160 other countries that are party to the convention. “It’s been too long in the waiting. America’s interests need this treaty.”
Oil, Gas Interests
The U.S. loses out economically by not ratifying, Kerry said, citing oil and gas interests, rights of passage for U.S. vessels and access to such resources as rare-earth minerals used in mobile phones.
The treaty has twice failed to win Senate ratification, in 2004 and 2007, in the face of conservative opposition. This time the opposition is being led by Republican Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina, who is seeking the 34 Senate votes needed to block ratification.
The Law of the Sea sets out the rules for the commercial use and environmental management of the world’s marine resources and determines the extent to which national territory extends offshore. Clashing claims over the oil-rich South China Sea between China and its smaller neighbors have brought the issue to the fore recently.
The original U.S. objection to the treaty under President Ronald Reagan was over one section that dealt with marine natural resources in the seabed beyond any state’s territorial waters. It established an International Seabed Authority to authorize exploration and mining, and to collect and distribute royalties. The U.S. objected, arguing that this section was unfavorable to its security and economic interests.
Kerry pointed to “major interests we’re foregoing” as a result of not signing the treaty, particularly the chance to mine rare-earth minerals from the ocean floor.
“We’re depending on China,” he said. “We could be mining rare-earth minerals under the sea, but the companies that do it won’t do it unless we’re signatories to the treaty,” he said, explaining that these firms’ claims aren’t protected if they work for countries that aren’t part of the convention.
“We rely on other countries for resources we could be developing ourselves,” Kerry said.
Panetta told a May 9 forum at the Atlantic Council, a Washington policy group, “this treaty is absolutely critical to U.S. national security.”
Administration officials argue that the treaty “codifies navigational rights and freedoms essential for our global mobility,” as Dempsey said at the same panel.
Ratifying the treaty would also let the U.S. counter efforts by rising powers to redefine international law, said Heather Conley, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington policy group.
She cited China’s “outsized claim to the entire South China Sea region” as an example of how countries are interpreting laws “in ways that run counter to long-standing interpretation and, more importantly for our purposes, to American national interests.”
As the administration has made Asia a focus of its foreign and defense policy agenda, Conley asked, “How can we argue that other nations must abide by international rules when we haven’t officially accepted those rules ourselves?”
Steven Grove, director of the Freedom Project at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington policy group, sees no need for the treaty.
“The big question is ’why do we need it?’” Grove said in a telephone interview. “I’ve never heard an adequate answer and I’ve been working on this for years.”
Grove said the U.S. doesn’t need the treaty to develop offshore oil and gas resources because the government uses presidential proclamations, acts of Congress and bilateral treaties to establish the boundaries of its continental shelf.
Navigational rights are ensured by customary international law, Grove said. And, if the U.S. ratifies the treaty, it would have to pay royalties to the International Seabed Authority, which “could then distribute those funds to developing and landlocked nations, including some that are corrupt, undemocratic or even state sponsors of terrorism,” Grove said.
Grove said that one reason to start the hearings now may be to take advantage of Lugar’s presence. Another may be for Kerry to win a victory for the administration.
“Getting a major policy win, like the long-languishing sea treaty, would be a big feather in Senator Kerry’s cap,” Grove said.
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