China Wants to Turn Water Into Territory in the South China Sea (and Beyond)


China’s longstanding campaign to redefine water as territory—territory where the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) fiat is law—proceeds apace. Lovers of maritime freedom must reject this campaign in all its forms. In other words, all nations that use the world’s oceans and seas to transact diplomacy, trade and commerce, and martial enterprises must rally against it.

Exhibit A: last week the CCP-affiliated tabloid Global Times reported that Beijing plans to amend its Maritime Traffic Safety Law (1984). The revised law will empower the authorities to “designate specific areas and temporarily bar foreign ships from passing through those areas according to their own assessment of maritime traffic safety.” Among other provisions, it will require foreign submarines to pass through “China’s waters” on the surface while flying their national flags to identify themselves.

CCP potentates are apt to take an extravagant view of what constitutes “China’s waters.”

The Legislative Affairs Office of the ruling State Council further declared that the amendments conform to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), often dubbed a “constitution for the oceans.” And so they may—if China restricts the law to the territorial seas authorized by UNCLOS. For instance, Article 20 of UNCLOS explicitly states: “In the territorial sea, submarines and other underwater vehicles are required to navigate on the surface and to show their flag.”