China is building a navy. Last year its first aircraft carrier was sighted conducting sea trials, and now China has reportedly upped its military spending by 12.5 percent in 2012. As the United States "pivots" to the Asia-Pacific region, U.S. defense planners are increasingly focused on China's maritime build-up. Recent Pentagon budgeting decisions - such as expanding space-based and cyber capabilities and improvements to the Navy's attack submarines - are designed to counter China's growing military capabilities.
However, an even more effective tool remains unused, and for no good reason: ratifying the U.N. Law of the Seas treaty. The treaty went into effect in 1994 and has more than 160 countries signed on, including Canada, Australia and all of Europe. The costs of not ratifying it are growing by the day. Until the Senate ratifies the treaty, we lack the international legitimacy to prevent Beijing from bullying Asia and bending economic and security laws in their favor.
The treaty has widespread, bi-partisan support - a rarity in Washington these days. Both Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush pushed for its approval. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved it, highlighted by a unanimous vote in 2004. The Joint Chiefs of Staff, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, every living chiefof Naval Operations, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce are for it.
When business interests line up with national security objectives, it signals how important and pressing is an issue. Ratifying the treaty saves the U.S. boatloads of cash. Approving it would reduce our military expenditures - yet maintain naval strength - at a time when our nation's debt keeps climbing.
As an example, the total economic cost of Somali piracy in 2011 was approximately $7 billion. The treaty would enable America to better coordinate anti-piracy and anti-terrorism efforts alongside the world community. Instead of policing the world's waters by ourselves, we could share the burden.
It reduces costs and danger for our already overextended Navy.
What's more, approving the treaty is similar to the best kind of business decision: it reduces our expenses and puts money in our pocket. It provides for Economic Exclusion Zones, or exclusive privileges to manage the natural resources near our coast. No country stands to benefit more from these zones than the United States.
As Citizens for Global Solutions points out, "The American zone is larger than that of any country in the world. The size of (America's) zone is…bigger than the lower 48 states combined."
It would provide increased access to the ocean's resources - including mineral-rich waters near our shores - helping boost the economy, increase domestic energy production and bring back more jobs.
Another benefit of the treaty is a boost for America's international legitimacy. China regularly violates the economic rights of many Asia-Pacific countries by controlling ocean territories reserved for our allies in the region, such as Japan and South Korea. By joining the Law of the Seas Convention, the U.S. would have the legal authority to enforce the treaty - preventing China, which has already ratified LOS, from illegally stripping its neighbors' natural resources. As it stands now, we lack the legal ability to prevent China from gaming the system. If we ratify the treaty, we gain a seat at the negotiating table and obtain leverage against China's bullying tactics.
The arguments against the treaty are grounded in ideology, not evidence. Critics argue that, under the treaty, the United States will lose access to vital seabed mineral resources and be subjected to foreign bureaucratic control, threatening our national security. Yet neither claim is accurate, and no country has more to gain from the treaty than this one. The nation gains access not only to huge tracts of the ocean by our shores, but exclusive regions of Arctic seabed.
What's more, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and director of Naval Intelligence have reaffirmed that, if anything, it will enhance America's maritime and security interests.
The Law of the Seas treaty does not compromise our global influence; rather, it enhances our security capabilities and economic opportunities. As we focus on the Asia-Pacific, we need all the tools we can get to counter China's maneuvering.
It's about time we stop allowing America to be handcuffed on the international stage.
Gail Harris is a retired Navy captain and a Truman National Security Senior Fellow. She served for 28 years as a Naval Intelligence officer, and was the highest-ranking African-American female in the Navy.