Defense, State Leaders Urge Senate to Ratify Law of the Sea Treaty

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)