It is a major shift by the US which has always refused to ratify the 1982 Convention on the rights of countries using the world's oceans.
Southeast Asia is calling for more speed in negotiations on its proposed Code of Conduct for the territories in the South China Sea claimed by China, Taiwan and four ASEAN states - Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei.
Correspondent: Graeme Dobell
Speakers: Leon Panetta, US Defence Secretary, Susilo Bambang-Yudhoyono, Indonesian President
DOBELL: The rise of China is causing the United States to think afresh about much of what it does in Asia. And that even stretches to an embrace of the Law of the Sea Convention which has long been anathema for many in Washington as a threat to US international rights and responsibilities.
The Law of the Sea argument has been inching through the US system, with the then President George W.Bush, in 2007 urging Congress to embrace the treaty as serving the national security interests of the United States, including the maritime mobility of its armed forces around the world.
Speaking at the Asia Security Summit in Singapore, the US Defence Secretary, Leon Panetta, stressed that in dealing with China and Asia, the US wants to abide by international rules to resolve disputes without coercion or the use of force.
PANETTA: Backing these principles has been the essential mission of the United States military in the Asia Pacific for more than 60 years, and it will be even a more important mission in the future. My hope is that in line with these rules and international order that is necessary that the United States will join over 160 other nations in ratifying the Law of the Sea's Convention this year.
DOBELL: Also in Singapore,the former Democrat candidate for Vice President now independent senator Joe Lieberman says the US looks hypocritical in calling for resolution of the South China Sea dispute by law when the US hasn't adopted the Law of the Sea.
LIEBERMAN: We should ratify the Law of the Sea treaty, we should have done it a long time ago. I think we have a better than even chance to ratify the Law of the Sea treaty in the Senate before the end of this year, probably after the election. It certainly can strengthen our position as we try to play a role in resolving the disputes in the South China Sea.
DOBELL: Senator Lieberman, though, doubts whether China and the other South China Sea claimant states are willing to accept the UN Convention as a basis for resolution. That doubt is shared by the previous Republication nominee for President, Senator John McCain.
MCCAIN: These disputes between China and the other countries really don't have a lot to do with the Law of the Sea treaty. It has to do with claims that have been around for years, it has to do with assertions that certain areas of the South China Sea with a dash line are within the historic territory of China. In other words, the Law of the Sea treaty I think should be considered by the United States Senate. But to believe that somehow this will lead to the resolution of these disputes I don't think is the case.
In 2002, China signed the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea with ASEAN. Since then, ASEAN and China have been working on moving from a declaration to a firmer legal basis - a Regional Code of Conduct. The recent confrontation between China and the Philippines in the South China Sea means that achieving that code has become even more critical, just as the tension highlights the problem of getting any agreement. The President of Indonesia, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.
SBY: This win-win strategic culture will become more necessary in dealing with flashpoints that are still found in parts of our region. The South China Sea comes to mind prominently. We can accept that overlapping territorial and jurisdictional claims are still a long way from being resolved. But even without waiting for resolution over territorial disputes we can still find ways to transform the potential conflict in the South China Sea into potential cooperation. And we need to pick up speed. It took ten long years for the guidelines of the Declaration of Conduct in the South China Sea to be completed. It should not take another ten years for the ASEAN-China working group to complete the Code of Conduct.