DOD looks to foreign allies for help passing Law of the Sea treaty

 The Defense Department is looking for a little help from its friends overseas as the Pentagon and White House try to break Senate opposition to an international treaty on maritime law.

Meeting with the defense chiefs of several Asian powers during the Shangri-La defense talks over the weekend, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta took the opportunity to continue his push for Senate ratification of the controversial Law of the Sea treaty. 

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“The United States believes it is critical for regional institutions to develop mutually agreed rules of the road that protect the rights of all nations to free and open access to the seas,” Panetta told Asian defense leaders during the high-level security conference on Saturday.

Ratification of the international pact, which would create de facto rules for the Pacific waterways, would fall “in line with these rules and international order that is necessary” to maintain peace in the Pacific, according to Panetta. 

Panetta’s remarks were specifically geared toward generating support for the treaty among regional allies in the Pacific, according to Patrick Cronin, an expert in Asian-Pacific security issues at the Center for a New American Security. 

“The real audience is Asia,” Cronin said, adding that securing support for the pact is an integral part of the White House’s national-security strategy for the Pacific. 

“Capitol Hill will [continue to] veer between those overselling the benefits of [the treaty] and those unduly vilifying it,” Cronin said.

But convincing American allies in the region to adopt the pact could give the Pentagon the leverage it needs to push ratification through the Senate. 

Administration officials have long tied treaty ratification to maintaining stability in the Pacific, but if the White House can get the weight of America’s Pacific partners behind the administration’s push for ratification, that could be enough to get a deal done in the Senate.

Top lawmakers, like Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), among others, have come out in support of the treaty, claiming it could be a much-needed check on an increasingly aggressive Chinese military in areas like the South China Sea.

A bloc of Senate Republicans opposing the treaty, led by Sens. Jon Kyl (Ariz.) and James Inhofe (Okla.), are also digging in, preparing to block any effort by the administration to lock in a ratification deal. 

Those lawmakers claim the pact does nothing to guarantee regional security along the waterways in the Pacific. 

The White House would also effectively tie the hands of the U.S. Navy to conduct operations in the region, since those missions would have to be reviewed and approved by treaty members, opponents claim. 

“The few areas that make the Defense Department feel better in regards to maritime disputes are far outweighed by the negative implications to U.S. sovereignty,” Inhofe spokesman Jared Young told The Hill on Monday. “The treaty does not keep [China] in check. U.S. naval might does.” 

Kyl suggested on Monday that Congress could enact a statute that takes certain parts of the treaty and codifies them as U.S. law, allowing the Senate to abandon ratification altogether.

“A statute, in effect, can separate the wheat from the chaff,” he said during a speech at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. “The United States [can then] contribute to the clarification of customary international law, by contributing its practices and legal opinions on the law of the sea.” 

But Panetta argued the United States and its regional partners, China in particular, “have a critical role to play in advancing security and prosperity by respecting the rules-based order” established under the treaty. 

“If both of us abide by international rules and international order, if both of us can work together to promote peace and prosperity and resolve disputes in this region, then both of us will benefit from that,” according to the Pentagon chief. 

“And it isn’t just military … it’s the ability to share in a number of areas that will determine the future of our relationship,” Panetta said.