The U.S.-China tension related to the South China Sea has been going on for years, and there is no end in sight.
China recently sent its second aircraft carrier, the Shandong, into the region and the Pentagon reports that a U.S. Navy destroyer recently conducted a Freedom of Navigation Operation wherein it sailed within the twelve mile territorial boundary of island territory claimed by China. FONOPS, as they are called, have been going on for years as part of a visible and decided effort to challenge what the Pentagon regards as illegitimate, erroneous and provocative territorial claims in the highly disputed areas of the South China Sea.
The area in question, referred to as the Spratly Island chain, consists of an island chain that has long been at the center of many territorial disputes wherein numerous countries have claimed certain areas as sovereign territory. Of course, China, along with a collection of U.S. allies in Southeast Asia such as the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan and Japan, have for years disagreed about who owns various elements of the islands.
“On December 22, the USS John S. McCain asserted navigational rights and freedoms in the Spratly Islands,” a Pentagon report says.
Tensions massively escalated years ago when Navy P-8 surveillance planes discovered China’s phony island-building, calling it “land reclamation.” China has now spent many years building man-made structures on and near islands it claims to own in a transparent effort to fortify its territorial claims. In recent years, China has built aircraft landing strips and based fighter jets, artillery, missiles on islands areas it claims to possess.
“Unlawful and sweeping maritime claims in the South China Sea pose a serious threat to the freedom of the seas, including the freedoms of navigation and overflight, free trade and unimpeded commerce, and freedom of economic opportunity for South China Sea littoral nations,” the Pentagon report states.
The United States, and most of the international community, follow what’s known as the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention, a sweeping agreement which identifies the first twelve miles of ocean surrounding the coastline of a sovereign territory can be “claimed” by that nation as their own. The treaty also provides provisions for what’s called Exclusive Economic Zones wherein allies or foreign countries need permission to conduct certain operations within several hundred miles of a country’s coastline. Therefore, to fully explain the rationale behind the U.S. FONOPS, one need only to recognize that sailing within twelve miles of a disputed area is intended to challenge illegitimate territorial claims.
“The United States challenges excessive maritime claims around the world regardless of the identity of the claimant. The international law of the sea as reflected in the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention provides for certain rights and freedoms and other lawful uses of the sea to all nations,” the Pentagon essay explains.
Interestingly, man-man or artificial island structures do not, according to the Pentagon, align with the Law of the Sea Convention’s definition of that which constitutes an “island.” Therefore, until or unless there is some kind of agreement or resolution to the long-standing crisis in the South China Sea, a development which is highly unlikely by any estimation, the U.S. will continue to conduct FONOPS and challenge China’s claims.
“As long as some countries continue to assert maritime claims that are inconsistent with international law as reflected in the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention and that purport to restrict unlawfully the rights and freedoms guaranteed to all States, the United States will continue to defend those rights and freedoms. No member of the international community should be intimidated or coerced into giving up their rights and freedoms,” the Pentagon report says.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.