The US Navy guided-missile destroyer USS Lassen sails in the Pacific Ocean. The U.S. Navy sent a guided-missile destroyer within 12 nautical miles of artificial islands built by China in the South China Sea on October 27, 2015. (REUTERS Photo)
In late October, the American destroyer USS Lassen sailed within the 12 nautical mile territorial waters limit claimed by China at Subi Reef in the South China Sea. China has no right to such a claim under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and the US was exercising its rights to freedom of navigation under the convention.
Predictably Beijing has protested while others have cheered the US action but American freedom of navigation (FON) operations are nothing new and have been carried out regularly in other seas despite the fact that the US itself has not ratified UNCLOS. In the South China Sea itself, the US has carried out FON operations to counter excessive maritime claims by Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam.
The reclamation activities carried out by China and other claimants are part of these excessive claims even though under UNCLOS, they do not enhance sovereignty or change their legal status. Nevertheless, Chinese reclamation outstrips those of the others by a wide margin and has clear implications for over-flight and freedom of navigation in the region despite Beijing’s rhetoric to the contrary.
While an actual conflict would render these distant Chinese outposts vulnerable, they are extremely useful short of such a situation to harass and deny other parties and thus change the facts on the ground. This ensures Chinese sovereignty de facto if not de jure.
Meanwhile, the US is also clear that it is not taking sides in the South China Sea sovereignty disputes.