- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 23, 2012

WASHINGTON (AP) — Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and the nation’s top military leaders pleaded on Wednesday for Senate approval of a long-spurned high-seas treaty, arguing that the pact will boost U.S. national security and create much-needed American jobs.

In a rare joint appearance before Congress, Mrs. Clinton, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made the case for the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, which was concluded in 1982 and has been in force since 1994.

The United States is the only major nation that has refused to sign the treaty, which has been endorsed by 161 countries and the European Union.

“We need to get off the sidelines and start taking advantage of the great deal that the Convention offers the United States and our business community,” Mrs. Clinton told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Military leaders past and present contend that the treaty would strengthen U.S. naval power, giving Americans favorable navigational rights and the freedom to use military force, if necessary. Among those are the right of transit through international straits and the right of passage through foreign territorial seas.

“Joining the convention would provide us another way to stave off conflict with less risk of escalation,” Gen. Dempsey told the committee.

Mr. Panetta pointed out that the United States has one of the longest coastlines and the largest extended continental shelf and has more to gain from approval of the treaty than any other country.

“If we are not at the table, then who will defend our interests?” Mr. Panetta asked.

The treaty has languished for years because of opposition from those who it would undermine U.S. sovereignty, and in recent months challenges from tea party Republicans. Sen. John F. Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat and chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, acknowledged the difficulty in moving the treaty, especially in an election year. He announced at the start of the hearing that he would not push for a Senate vote before the November elections.

But he insisted that approval of the treaty is necessary because the United States “has lived by the rules, but we don’t shape the rules.”

Mr. Kerry cast the issue in terms of the U.S. losing out to growing military powers China and Russia, which is claiming oil and other resources in the Arctic.

The treaty has exposed divisions within the Republican Party. Pro-business groups led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce strongly support ratification of the pact while tea partyers argue against it. The fracture was evident last week when House Republicans, ignoring the pleas of the Chamber of Commerce, voted to limit funds for enforcement of the treaty as part of a far-reaching defense bill.

At least two dozen senators have signed a letter circulated by Sen. Jim DeMint, South Carolina Republican, vowing to oppose the treaty if it gets to the Senate floor for a vote.

The senators said in the letter that they are “particularly concerned that United States sovereignty could be subjugated in many areas” to an authority representing various countries.

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