American businesses are urging the United States to ratify the UN Law of the Sea Treaty, saying it is needed to boost crucial domestic energy production and end China's near-monopoly on rare earths.
Stepping up pressure on legislators to sign off on the 30-year-old pact, a broad alliance of manufacturers, miners, shippers and oil explorers said doing so would guarantee their exclusive access to economic resources reaching up to 600 miles (1,000 km) from the US shoreline.
With China controlling 95 percent of the world's rare earths production, ratification of the treaty "offers the best path to break China's dominance," Roger Ballantine, a board member of The Association for Rare Earth (RARE), said Wednesday.
Ballantine, speaking at a news forum on the eve of a Senate hearing on the treaty, said that failure to ratify the treaty "will only worsen a very troubling disadvantage America has."
His comments came against the backdrop of an escalating trade dispute with China over restrictions on its rare earths exports.
On Wednesday, the US, European Union and Japan ratcheted up their complaint at the World Trade Organization by asking for a dispute settlement committee after consultations failed.
The United States is the only industrialized power which has yet to ratify the treaty.
RARE has joined a broad coalition of the National Association of Manufacturers, the US Chamber of Commerce, the Chamber of Shipping of America, defense contractors, energy industry and other groups to press for ratification.
Supporters argue that ratification will give US businesses the legal framework for investment in costly, high-tech exploration and development.
Key among its advantages, they say, would be to legitimize US claims to vast areas of the energy-rich Arctic, and unfettered access to lay and maintain undersea communications cables.
It would also give greater access to undersea rare earth minerals, which are widely used in smartphones, flat-screen TVs, medical equipment and US defense systems.
Opponents say the treaty could actually limit US businesses' access to undersea mineral wealth, by giving power to the International Seabed Authority to decide access rights; they also say the treaty could impinge on the movements around the world of the US Navy.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army General Martin Dempsey have all argued in favor of the treaty.
Jeff Pike, who leads The American Sovereignty Campaign, the lobby in favor of the treaty, said ratification was now more than ever urgent, citing the importance of global communications links and also the melting ice in the Arctic that was opening up shipping.
"This is really the right time to do it," Pike told reporters.
Bruce Josten, the US Chamber of Commerce's head of government affairs, said the treaty would open up "the next and newest American frontier."
Senator John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations and a long-time supporter of the pact, has decided to delay a vote on the treaty until after the November 6 elections in a bid to avoid it becoming entangled in the political fray.