Panetta: U.S. Leadership Needed in Law of the Sea Convention
By Jim Garamone
WASHINGTON, May 9, 2012 - As the globe's preeminent maritime power, the United States has much to gain in ratifying the United Nations Law of the Sea Convention, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said here today.
Panetta listed five reasons why the Law of the Sea Convention strengthens U.S. national security.
"First, as the world's preeminent maritime power, and the country with one of the largest coastlines and extended continental shelf, we have more to gain from accession to the convention than any other country," he said.
Right now, the United States has no seat at the table and is unable to help interpret the "rules of the road" on the oceans. Ratifying the convention "would give us the credibility to support and promote the peaceful resolution of disputes within a rules-based order," the secretary said.
Panetta's second point is that by joining the convention, the United States would protect its navigational freedoms and global access for military and commercial ships, aircraft, and undersea fiber optic cables. American rights on the seas, he said, currently rely on customary international laws, which can change.
"Treaty law remains the firmest legal foundation upon which to base our global presence, on, above, and below the seas," Panetta said.
A third point, he added, is that ratification would help to increase America's natural resource and economic jurisdiction, not only to 200 nautical miles off U.S. coasts, but to a broad continental shelf beyond that zone.
"Fourth, accession would ensure our ability to reap the benefits of the opening of the Arctic -- a region of increasingly important maritime security and economic interest," Panetta said. Countries are already posturing for new shipping routes and natural resources as Arctic ice cover recedes.
The Law of the Sea Convention is the only means for international recognition and acceptance of the U.S. extended continental shelf claims in the Arctic.
"And we are the only Arctic nation that is not party to the convention," Panetta said.
Fifth, the secretary said, the new U.S. defense strategy emphasizes the strategically vital arc extending from the Western Pacific and East Asia into the Indian Ocean region and South Asia.
"Becoming a party to the convention would strengthen our position in this key area," he said.
The strategic arc is crucial to American interests now and into the future, Panetta said. The convention would stop countries in this arc from proposing restrictions on access for military vessels in the Indian Ocean, Persian Gulf, and the South China Sea.
"The United States has long declared our interests and respect for international law, freedom of navigation and peaceful resolution of disputes," Panetta said. "We have demonstrated our commitment to those interests through our consistent presence and engagement in these critical maritime regions."
Ratifying the convention would serve to strengthen U.S. policy in the region, the secretary said. It would also increase America's credibility to all nations of the Asia-Pacific. Right now, he said, the United States undercuts itself as it pushes for a rules-based order in the region and the peaceful resolution of maritime and territorial disputes in the South China Sea and elsewhere.
"How can we argue that other nations must abide by international rules, when we haven't officially accepted those rules," the secretary said.
The Strait of Hormuz is another possible flash point. It is a vital sea lane of communication and commerce and the United States and its allies "are determined to preserve freedom of transit there in the face of Iranian threats to impose a blockade," Panetta said.
"U.S. accession to the convention would help strengthen worldwide transit passage rights under international law and isolate Iran as one of the few remaining non-parties to the convention," the secretary said.
Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, accompanied Panetta and also provided remarks at the forum.
Dempsey Urges Ratification of Law of the Sea Convention
Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, delivers remarks at the Law of the Sea Convention Forum in Washington, D.C., May 9, 2012. DOD photo by Glenn Fawcett