WASHINGTON, May 23, 2012 — In the strongest terms possible, defense and diplomatic leaders urged the Senate today to ratify the Law of the Sea Convention.
Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta along with Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, joined Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. All three urged the committee to approve the treaty. “I strongly believe that accession to this treaty is absolutely essential, not only to our economic interests, our diplomatic interests, but I’m here to say that it is extremely important to our national security interests as well,” Panetta told the Senate panel. “I join a lot of the military voices of the past and present that have spoken so strongly in support of this treaty.”
The treaty, which came into force in 1994, has been waiting for Senate ratification ever since.
Panetta stressed that acceding to the treaty would help maintain the United States as a global naval power. “If we’re going to continue to assert our role as a maritime power, it’s essential that we accede to this important convention,” he told the panel.
“We believe that it is imperative to act now,” Clinton said. “No country is better served by this convention than the United States. As the world’s foremost maritime power, we benefit from the convention’s favorable freedom of navigation provisions. As the country with the world’s second-longest coastline, we benefit from its provisions on offshore natural resources.”
A total of 161 countries have approved the treaty. “We’re the only industrial power that has failed to do that,” Panetta said. “And as a result, we don’t have a seat at the table.”
Not having a seat means the U.S. is not represented and U.S. claims are not defended. It means being unable to influence nations who are at the table, Panetta said.
Ratifying the treaty, “would ensure that our rights are not whittled away by the excessive claims and erroneous interpretations of others,” Panetta said. “It would give us the power and authority to support and promote the peaceful resolution of disputes within a rules-based order.”
The treaty would also secure U.S. navigational freedoms and global access for military and commercial ships, aircraft and undersea fiber-optic cables.
Panetta suggested the new defense strategy almost demands accession to the Law of the Sea Treaty. “We at the Defense Department have gone through an effort to develop a defense strategy for the future, a defense strategy not only for now, but into the future as well,” the secretary said. “And it emphasizes the strategically vital arc that extends from the western Pacific and eastern Asia into the Indian Ocean region and South Asia on to the Middle East.”
By not ratifying the treaty, the United States undercuts its credibility in that crucial arc. “We’re pushing, for example, for a rules-based order in the region and the peaceful resolution of maritime and territorial disputes in the South China Sea, in the Straits of Hormuz and elsewhere,” Panetta said. “How can we argue that other nations must abide by international rules when we haven’t joined the very treaty that codifies those rules?”
Dempsey hammered home this point, noting that joining the Law of the Sea Convention would strengthen America’s ability to apply sea power. From his standpoint, the treaty codifies the navigational rights and freedoms necessary to project and sustain U.S. military forces. These include the right of transit through international straits, the right to exercise high seas freedoms in foreign exclusive economic zones, and the right of innocent passage through foreign territorial seas.
“And, it reinforces the sovereign immunity of our warships as they conduct operations,” Dempsey said.
Right now, the United States exercises these rights by sailing into these waters or flying over them. “This plays into the hands of foreign states that seek to bend customary law to restrict movement on the oceans,” the chairman said. “And, it puts our warships and aircraft ‘on point’ to constantly challenge claims.”
The United States will defend its interests on the seas, the chairman said.
“But, the force of arms does not have to be — and should not be — our only national security instrument,” he said. “Joining the convention would provide us another way to stave off conflict with less risk of escalation.”
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)