The Buzz

China's Fake Islands in the South China Sea: What Should America Do?

While China conducts innocent passage around real U.S. islands of Alaska, the U.S. is apparently unable to do so around China’s fake islands in the South China Sea. The transit by Chinese warships in innocent passage through the territorial sea of Attu Island in the Aleutian chain has added an additional wrinkle to U.S. policy in the South China Sea.

On May 12, the Wall Street Journal reported that Secretary of Defense Ash Carter had asked his staff to “look at options” for exercising the rights and freedom of navigation and overflight in the EEZ, to include flying maritime patrol aircraft over China’s new artificial islands in the region, and sending U.S. warships to within 12 nautical miles of them. Later that month, a P-8 surveillance aircraft with a CNN crew on board, was repeatedly warned to “go away quickly” from Fiery Cross Reef, even as it flew beyond 12 nm from the feature. Fiery Cross Reef is a Chinese-occupied outcropping that has been fortified by a massive 2.7 million square meter land reclamation into an artificial island with a 3,110-meter airstrip and harbor works capable of servicing large warships.

Warships and commercial vessels of all nations are entitled to conduct transit in innocent passage in the territorial sea of a rock or island of a coastal state, although aircraft do not enjoy such a right. Ironically, the website POLITICO reported on July 31 that the White House blocked plans by Admiral Harry Harris, Commander, U.S. Pacific Command, to send warships within 12 nm of China’s artificial islands – features that may not even qualify for a territorial sea. By blocking such transits, military officials apparently suggest that the White House tacitly accepts China’s unlawful claim to control shipping around its occupied features in the South China Sea. Senator John McCain complained that the United States was making a “dangerous mistake” by granting de facto recognition of China’s man-made “sovereignty” claims.

It is unclear whether features like Fiery Cross Reef are rocks or merely low-tide elevations that are submerged at high tide, and after China has so radically transformed them, it may now be impossible to determine their natural state. Under the terms of the law of the sea, states with ownership over naturally formed rocks are entitled to claim a 12 nm territorial sea. On the other hand, low-tide elevations in the mid-ocean do not qualify for any maritime zone whatsoever. Likewise, artificial islands and installations also generate no maritime zones of sovereignty or sovereign rights in international law, although the owner of features may maintain a 500-meter vessel traffic management zone to ensure navigational safety.

Regardless of the natural geography of China’s occupied features in the South China Sea, China does not have clear legal title to them. Every feature occupied by China is challenged by another claimant state, often with clearer line of title from Spanish, British or French colonial rule. The nation, not the land, is sovereign, which is why there is no territorial sea around Antarctica – it is not under the sovereignty of any state, despite being a continent. As the United States has not recognized Chinese title to the features, it is not obligated to observe requirements of a theoretical territorial sea. Since the territorial sea is function of state sovereignty of each rock or island, and not a function of simple geography, if the United States does not recognize any state having title to the feature, then it is not obligated to observe a theoretical territorial sea and may treat the feature as terra nullius. Not only do U.S. warships have a right to transit within 12 nm of Chinese features, they are free to do so as an exercise of highs seas freedom under article 87 of the Law of the Sea Convention, rather than the more limited regime of innocent passage. Furthermore, whereas innocent passage does not permit overflight, high seas freedoms do, and U.S. naval aircraft lawfully may overfly such features.

In response, it might be suggested that while the United States may not recognize Chinese ownership of the rocks, it must realize that some country, perhaps one of the coastal states actually located in the vicinity of the feature, has lawful title, and therefore the U.S. Navy is bound to observe a putative territorial sea.

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