WASHINGTON (AP) — Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton says U.S. failure to approve the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea weakens its advocacy for allies in the disputed South China Sea.
Clinton said that China's claims in those waters exceed what is permitted by the convention. She was speaking at a hearing Wednesday of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, where she and top military leaders offered an impassioned plea for the U.S. to join the pact.
To China's chagrin, the Obama administration has asserted since 2010 that although the U.S. is not itself a claimant state in the South China Sea, it has an interest in the peaceful resolution of the disputes and in the freedom of navigation in waters that carry a large chunk of global trade.
Clinton said the U.S. supports countries "being threatened" by China's claims.
"As a non-party, we cede the legal high ground to China. We put ourselves on the defensive. We are not as strong an advocate for our friends and allies in the region as I would like us to be, and I don't think that's any place for the world's pre-eminent maritime power to find ourselves," she said.
China is among the more than 160 nations that are party to the convention. Its expansive claims in the South China Sea are disputed by Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines, a U.S. treaty ally.
The convention was concluded in 1982 and has been in force since 1994. Republican opposition has stalled U.S. approval for years although the military says it still acts in accordance with the pact's principles.
Despite considerable bipartisan support and the backing of pro-business groups, Democrat committee chairman Sen. John Kerry acknowledged the difficulty in moving the treaty, especially in an election year in the United States. Several Republican lawmakers voiced opposition Wednesday to the convention.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, said U.S. endorsement would strengthen U.S. security interests as it would provide clarity in definition of navigational rights and maritime zones — at a time of growing competition for resources.
"And from that clarity comes stability. And as we now begin to rebalance our security interests into the Pacific, this becomes very important," Dempsey said.
Democrat Sen. Barbara Boxer criticized Beijing's claims in the South China Sea. She produced a map to show the claims extended far beyond China's own 200-mile (320-kilometer) exclusive economic zone and amounted to a "significant territorial grab that comes very close to the land borders of countries in the region."
She referred to the standoff at the Scarborough Shoal that began last month when the Philippines navy accused Chinese fishermen of poaching within its exclusive zone.
The Philippines accused China on Wednesday of sending more government and fishing vessels to the uninhabited, horseshoe-shaped shoal. Manila says China has a total of 96 ships, fishing boats and dinghies there, while the Philippines has two.
Rising power China has turned down a Philippine invitation for international arbitration of the dispute.
Beijing's position in the South China Sea disputes is based on ancient maps. A map it submitted to the U.N. in 2009 claims virtually the entire South China Sea, but Beijing has failed to clarify the exact extent of its claims.