WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The United States must secure its rights for rare minerals and oil under the ocean before countries such as China begin to infringe on the country's territorial rights, according to the nation's top diplomat and U.S. military leaders.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey urged a Senate panel Wednesday to support a long-opposed international sea treaty that they said will also strengthen the nation's ability to apply military sea power.
Testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations committee in a rare appearance together, the three leaders called on the Senate panel to approve the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas because it was a "matter of utmost security and economic urgency."
The treaty would give the United States a 200-mile exclusive economic zone off of its coastlines as well as access to mineral and other natural resource rights within that area but allows other signatories the right of transit within the economic zone.
The treaty has been mostly ignored by the United States since 1994. More than 160 nations have signed the treaty; the United States is the only major nation that has not.
"Some of us have had the opportunity in the past to evaluate this treaty and even to vote on it in this committee. I am personally deeply supportive of it, and I believe it is now more urgent than ever that we ratify it because to remain outside of it is fundamentally directly counter to the best interests of our country," said Sen. John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations committee.
Proponents of the treaty said approving the treaty will strengthen the United States' hand against developing countries like Russia and China, which are already staking out claims in the Pacific and the Arctic.
Kerry said it would also give U.S. oil and gas companies the certainty they need to make "crucial investments to secure our energy future."
But members who are against it said it will tie the hands of the U.S Navy to operate freely around the world as well as forcing the United States to submit to other accords not agreed to by the U.S. government.
"This treaty would subordinate American sovereignty to the United Nations, impose an international tax on U.S. energy production that would raise costs for American families and act as a backdoor Kyoto Protocol that could allow foreign nations to regulate U.S. energy emissions," according to Sen. Jim DeMint, a South Carolina Republican.
Clinton denied the claims by DeMint and others on the panel, saying she is certain approving the treaty would be in the best interest of the United States, not other countries.
"I believe so vehemently that acceding to this treaty is in America's sovereign interest, or I would not be sitting here," Clinton said.
Kerry won't bring the treaty to a vote before the presidential election so that electoral politics won't be involved in the debate on the issue.
He said he would also hold more hearings prior to a vote to address concerns dissenting members have on the treaty.