“Reclaiming” international waters in the South China Sea

Editors’ Note: The United States shouldn’t get overly vexed about what China does in the South China Sea, Mike O’Hanlon argues, but it should feel free to sail naval ships within a couple miles of some of China’s new islands (as international law permits). An earlier version of this piece was published in the
Wall Street Journal

What should the United States do about China’s increased assertiveness in the South China Sea, and specifically the question of how to address its new, “reclaimed,” man-made islands? This question is salient now as the United States considers sending ships near those islands, to underscore that it does not acknowledge Chinese sovereignty over them and that it certainly does not believe China can claim territorial seas 12 miles out from their shores.

The United States routinely sails ships like aircraft carriers into the South China Sea—and it should continue to do so. The U.S. Navy’s role in protecting the freedom of navigation has been a huge boon to world stability and prosperity, including China’s, for decades. As such, the United States should send naval ships within a couple miles of some of China’s new islands, perhaps with smaller ships in a matter-of-fact way.

Rules and principles

The United States justifies its worldwide naval activities in support of freedom of navigation based on the 1983 Law of the Sea Convention. That Convention, which was based largely on common maritime practice, accords territorial zones and economic zones to major land masses and islands. It also allows free use of crucial straits around the world and otherwise promotes the sharing of the global maritime domain. 

[T]he United States should send naval ships within a couple miles of some of China’s new islands…in a matter-of-fact way.

Even though Washington has not itself ratified the Convention, it supports these core principles and is right to do so. From the Strait of Hormuz to the Straits of Malacca to key shipping lanes in the South China Sea, everyone benefits from this public good that the United States Navy helps protect. No other nation or consortium of nations is in a position to provide the same service. China helps a little, along with a few other nations, in counter-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden off Somalia’s coast. But it is building up capacities in the South China Sea that may erode those norms and the freedom of navigation overall. 

Unsinkable aircraft carriers

The best guideline for U.S. future maritime patrols in the South China Sea is to think of these islands in the way China is apparently intending to use them (even though President Xi Jinping said in Washington last month that they would not be militarized)—as unsinkable aircraft carriers, nothing more and nothing less. 

As part of President Obama’s Asia-Pacific rebalance strategy, the United States has committed to deploy more military capability to the region. It has announced the intention to increase the fraction of the U.S. Navy oriented towards the Asia-Pacific region from the historical norm of 50 percent to 60 percent by 2020. This is a reasonable, balanced, modest change about which Washington has been appropriately transparent. Provided China explains its new military buildup in the region in the same sort of way, and keeps it similarly modest in scale, we have nothing much to complain about.

[T]he United States must uphold its commitment to the basic notion that the South China Sea is for all to use.

But that is a conditional statement. It depends on China’s behavior, and the scale of its ambitions. Some signs are worrisome. Beijing’s claim of a “nine-dash line” that would treat most of the South China Sea and its islands (natural as well as manmade) as a Chinese lake is unacceptable. The notion that China can build islands that then give it effective ownership of the nearby seas is also unacceptable. The United States needs to be clear on this point, in an understated but firm way.

We can be flexible on some matters in the South China Sea. And the U.S. Navy should be as non-dramatic, safe, and careful in its freedom of navigation activities as possible. Yet there can be little doubt that, given the importance of the sea lanes to global commerce, the United States must uphold its commitment to the basic notion that the South China Sea is for all to use, and that reclaimed sand bars and shoals cannot change that fact.