23 May 2015
The idea that the United States may send military aircraft and ships to assert freedom of navigation around Chinese claimed islands in the South China Sea is seriously bad. It’s bad because it would involve an unreasonably assertive interpretation of the international law of the sea, and because it shows such little regard for the impact of such action on regional stability.
There are three main implications of the U.S. proposal that concern the law of the sea. The first is the status of China’s claims to the disputed islands. A recent authoritative report from the Center for Naval Analyses in Washington concluded that while Vietnam may have a better claim to both the Spratlys and the Paracels, ‘[a]t the same time, U.S. policymakers cannot lose sight of the fact that China’s claims may be superior’, and that ‘[t]he absence of an unambiguous legal case in any of these disputes reinforces the wisdom of the U.S. policy of not taking a position regarding which country’s sovereignty claim is superior.’ The action now being contemplated can only be seen as an indication that in fact the United States has taken a position on the sovereignty claims.
The second issue is the oft-stated line from Washington that China threatens the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. But what freedoms of navigation are being threatened? China has always said that with freedoms of navigation and overflight, it only disputes the right of the United States to conduct military activities, particularly certain types of intelligence collection and military data gathering (so-called ‘military surveys’) in its exclusive economic zone (EEZ). China’s disputation of the right of the United States to undertake these activities isn’t without merit, particularly when the military surveys constitute marine scientific research which is under the jurisdiction of the coastal State in its EEZ. Also, it’s significant that several other regional countries, India, Malaysia and Thailand, share China’s position on military activities in the EEZ.
… Sam Bateman is a professorial research fellow at the Australian National Center for Ocean Resources and Security (ANCORS), University of Wollongong, and also an adviser to the Maritime Security Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. A version of this article was first published in the Australia Strategic Policy Institute’s blog The Strategist here.
IDSS / Online
Last updated on 18/11/2015