You have reached a collection of archived material.

The content available is no longer being updated and may no longer be applicable as a result of changes in law, regulation and/or administration. If you wish to see the latest content, please visit the current version of the site.

For persons with disabilities experiencing difficulties accessing content on, please use the DoD Section 508 Form. In this form, please indicate the nature of your accessibility issue/problem and your contact information so we can address your issue or question.

United States Department of Defense United States Department of Defense

Secretary of Defense Testimony

Press Operations Bookmark and Share


Spoken Statement on Law of the Sea Convention before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee

As Delivered by Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta, Washington, D.C., Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Chairman Kerry, Senator Lugar, distinguished members.  I want to thank you for the opportunity to be the first Secretary of Defense to testify in support of United States accession to the Law of the Sea Convention.  

I have been involved in ocean issues most of my career and I strongly believe that accession to this treaty is absolutely essential not only to our economic interests and our diplomatic interests but I’m here to say that it’s extremely important to our national security interests as well.

I join a lot of the military voices of the past and present that have spoken so strongly in support of this treaty.  The fundamental point is clear: if the United States is to assert its historical role as a global maritime power, and we have, without question, the strongest Navy in the world, but if we’re going to continue to assert our role as a maritime power, it’s essential that we accede to this important Convention.

Being here with Secretary Clinton and Chairman Dempsey – their presence alone is a testament to the conviction of our diplomatic and military leadership that this Convention is absolutely essential to strengthening our position around the world. 

Let me outline some of the critical arguments with regards to U.S. national security and why it’s time to move forward with this issue.   

First of all, as the world’s strongest pre-eminent maritime power, we are a country with one of the longest coastlines and largest extended continental shelves in the world, we have more to gain from approving the Convention than almost any other country.  There are 161 countries that have approved.  We are the only industrial power that has failed to do that, and as a result, we don’t have a seat at the table.

If we are sitting at this international table of nations, we can defend our interests, we can defend our claims, we can lead the discussion in trying to influence those treaty bodies that develop and interpret the Law of the Sea.  We are not there.  And as a result, they’re the ones who are developing the interpretation of this very important treaty.

In that way, we would ensure that our rights are not whittled away by the excessive claims and erroneous interpretations of others.  It would give us the power and authority to support and promote the peaceful resolution of disputes within a rules-based order.

Second, we would secure our navigational freedoms and global access for military and commercial ships, aircraft, and undersea fiber optic cables. 

Treaty law remains the firmest legal foundation upon which to base our global presence, as the Secretary has pointed out, and it’s true on, above, and below the seas.  By joining the Convention, we would help lock-in rules that are favorable to our freedom of navigation and our global mobility. 

Third, accession would help secure a truly massive increase in our country’s resource and economic jurisdiction, not only to 200 nautical miles off our coasts, but to a broad extended continental shelf beyond that zone adding almost another third to our nation in terms of jurisdiction. 

Fourth, accession would ensure our ability to reap the benefits—again, as the Secretary has pointed out—of the opening of the Arctic.  Joining the Convention would maximize international recognition and acceptance of our substantial extended continental shelf claims in the Arctic, and—as again the Secretary pointed out—we are the only Arctic nation that is not a party to this Convention. 

More importantly from our navigation and military point of view, accession would also secure our freedom of navigation and our over-flight rights throughout the Arctic, and it would strengthen the freedom of navigation arguments with respect to the Northern Sea Route and Northwest Passage.

And finally, let me say that we at the Defense Department have gone through an effort to develop a defense strategy not only for now but into the future as well.  It emphasizes the strategically vital arc that extends from the Western Pacific and East Asia into the Indian Ocean region and South Asia on to the Middle East.  By not acceding, we potentially undercut our credibility in a number of Asia-focused multilateral venues that involve that arc I just defined – 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, the Strait of Hormuz and elsewhere. 

How can we argue that other nations must abide by international rules when we haven’t joined the very treaty that codifies those rules?  We would also help strengthen worldwide transit passage rights under international law and isolate Iran as one of the few remaining non-parties to the Convention.     

These are the key reasons from a national security point of view for accession – reasons that are critical to our sovereignty, critical to our national security.  Again, as the Secretary pointed out, I understand the arguments that have been made on the other side, but at the same time, I don’t understand the logic of those arguments.

The myth that somehow this would surrender U.S. sovereignty, nothing could be further from the truth.  Not since we acquired the lands of the American West and Alaska have we had such an opportunity to expand U.S. sovereignty.  The estimated extended continental shelf is said to encompass at least 385,000 square miles of seabed.  As the Secretary pointed out, it’s one and half times the size of Texas that would be added to our sovereignty, that would be added to our jurisdiction.

Some claim that joining the Convention will restrict our military’s operations and activities, or limit our ability to collect intelligence in territorial seas.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

The Convention in no way harms our intelligence collection activities; in no way does it constrain our military operations.  On the contrary, U.S. accession to the Convention secures our freedom of navigation and over-flight rights as bedrock treaty law.  

Some allege that the Convention would subject us to the jurisdiction of international courts – and that this represents a surrendering of our sovereignty. 

Once again, this is not the case.  The Convention provides that a party may declare it does not accept any dispute resolution procedures for disputes concerning military activities; we would do the same – as so many other nations have chosen likewise to do.  Moreover, it would be up to the U.S. to decide precisely what constitutes a military activity—not others.

Others argue that our maritime interdiction operations will be constrained.  And again, this is simply not the case. 

The U.S. and our partners routinely conduct a range of interdiction operations based on UN Security Council Resolutions on treaties, port state control measures and the inherent right of self-defense.  The U.S. would be able to continue conducting the full range of maritime interdiction operations.     

In short, the Law of the Sea Convention provides the stable, recognized legal regime that we need in order to conduct our global operations today, and in the future.

Frankly, this is not even a close call – the Law of the Sea Convention is supported, as pointed out by the Secretary, by major U.S. industries, by the Chamber of Commerce, by our energy, shipbuilding, shipping, and communications companies, by fishing interests, and by environmental organizations – along with past and present Republican and Democratic administrations, strong bipartisan majorities of this committee, and the entire national security leadership. 

By finally acceding to the Convention, we help make our nation more secure and more prosperous for generations to come.  America is the strongest power in the world.  We have the strongest Navy.  And make no mistake, we have the ability to defend our interests anytime, anywhere.  But we are strong precisely because we play by the rules. 

For too long, the United States has failed to act on this treaty.  For too long, we have undermined our moral and diplomatic authority to fight for our rights and our maritime interests. 

For too long, we have allowed our inability to act to impair our national security.  The time is now, for this Senate to do what others have failed to do: join the Law of the Sea Convention.

Thank you.

Most Recent Testimonies


As Delivered by Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, Washington, D.C.


As Delivered by Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, Washington, D.C.


As Delivered by Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, Washington, D.C.


As Submitted by Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, Washington, D.C.


As Delivered by Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, Washington, D.C.


As Submitted by Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, Washington, D.C.


As Delivered by Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, Washington, D.C.


As Submitted by Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, Washington, D.C.


As Delivered by Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, Washington, D.C.

Additional Links

Stay Connected