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China and America Clash on the High Seas: The EEZ Challenge

May 22, 2014 Topic: Defense Region: China

China and America Clash on the High Seas: The EEZ Challenge

"Were the U.S. to accept China’s interpretation of UNCLOS, U.S. military vessels could be barred from operating in the roughly one-third of the world’s oceans that are now EEZs."

A Pattern of Behavior

Testing boundaries and establishing new status quos has been a defining feature of China’s more provocative external posture since 2009. When the U.S. and other countries have faltered in the face of this agenda, as was the case with the Philippines in the Scarborough Shoal , China has successfully advanced its goals. However, where the U.S. has demonstrated resolve, Beijing has opted to avoid confrontation.

In 2010, after the sinking of the South Korean corvette Cheonon by a North Korean midget submarine, Beijing warned the U.S. multiple times against sending the USS George Washington aircraft to conduct exercises with South Korea in the Yellow Sea. After some delay, those exercises were eventually held over Beijing’s objection, and the U.S. aircraft carrier has now exercised in the Yellow Sea multiple times with little protest from Beijing. When Beijing unilaterally declared an Air Defense Identification Zone in late 2013 , the U.S. decision to immediately fly B-52 bombers within the new ADIZ without notifying Beijing established an important precedent. And the U.S. has, and must continue to, conduct surveillance activities in China’s EEZ despite Beijing’s frequent objections.

While working to construct better conflict resolution mechanisms and improve relations with the PLAN, Washington must continue to emphasize that its policy is not subject to fear, intimidation, coercion, or reckless behavior from Chinese naval or coastal defense forces. This should include maintaining an active schedule of surveillance activities, patrolling, and freedom of navigation operations. This position is not only within the U.S. national interest, but also supported by domestic and international law. Were the U.S. to accept China’s interpretation of UNCLOS, U.S. military vessels could be barred from operating in the roughly one-third of the world’s oceans that are now EEZs  (102 million of 335 million sq. km of ocean).  That outcome is unacceptable to the U.S. and its allies and was never envisioned by the drafters of UNCLOS.

Jeff M. Smith is Director of South Asia Programs and Kraemer Strategy Fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council (AFPC) in Washington, D.C.

Joshua Eisenman is Senior Fellow for China Studies at the AFPC and has been appointed assistant professor at the University of Texas-Austin Lyndon B Johnson School of Public Affairs.

Image: Flickr/ U.S. Navy /CC by 2.0