The nation's top defense officials warned Congress on Wednesday that the U.S. will have to rely solely on military might to assert itself on the high seas and maintain freedom of navigation if the Law of the Sea Treaty is not ratified.
"The force of arms does not have to be, and should not be, our only national security instrument," Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
If the U.S engages in "gunboat diplomacy," instead of international law governing rights and responsibilities on the high seas, "then the end result of that is going to be conflict," Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta told the committee.
"The better approach is to have those carriers, have those destroyers, make very clear the power we have, but then sit down and engage these other countries in a rules-based format that allows us to make the kinds of arguments that we have to make when we engage with 160 other nations as to navigational rights," Mr. Panetta said.
The Law of the Sea Treaty provides a structure for nations to discuss and establish rules for sea territory, transit through international waterways, and sovereignty of vessels, among other issues. It also provides a mechanism for dispute resolution among member nations.
The U.S. signed onto the treaty in 1994, but Congress has yet to ratify it.
Sen. James M. Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican, said that ratifying the treaty would subject the U.S. to environmental regulations and would require the U.S. to pay billions to developing countries for royalties from oil and gas production.
"This is the first time in history that an international organization — the U.N., in this case — would possess taxing authority over this country," Mr. Inhofe said during Wednesday's committee hearing.
Sen. Jim DeMint, South Carolina Republican, added that ratification would give adversaries a veto over U.S. maritime interests.
"If we have a veto, [Sudan has] a veto. Their interest is very different than ours," he said, adding that some of the treaty's signatories do not abide by it or arbitrarily interpret it.
"Are they going to now abide by the rules the way we see them? My concern is we will abide, but they're already violating the rules that they've ascribed to. And I don't know how this creates a system of rules that we can count on," Mr. DeMint said.
Testifying with Gen. Dempsey and Mr. Panetta, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said it is better to have a "seat at the table" than allow other nations to create laws the U.S. might have to abide by.
"We have the worst of all worlds. We've effectively lived by the terms of the treaty for 30 years. But, as a nonparty, we're on the outside looking in," Mrs. Clinton said. "We live by the rules, but we don't shape the rules."
She added that becoming a treaty member would give the U.S. another tool with which to engage other nations, especially given a race for maritime energy resources, such as in the Arctic region.
"We are the only Arctic nation outside the convention. Russia and the other Arctic states are advancing their continental shelf claims in the Arctic, while we are on the outside looking in. As a party to the convention, we would have a much stronger basis to assert our interests throughout the entire Arctic region," she said.
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