After the USS Decatur navigated through the Paracel Islands on Oct. 21, the Chinese Ministry of National Defense stated that the United States warship had entered Chinese territorial waters without authorization — a serious violation and intentional provocation according to China.
Although the US Navy claimed that the USS Decatur navigated outside the territorial sea limit of 12 nautical miles from each of the Paracel features, the Chinese claim the baseline surrounding the Paracel as a whole. A claim squarely rejected by the arbitral tribunal.
Indeed, it was not the first time the US has conducted its “Freedom of Navigation Program” in the South China Sea. Overall, China has persistently protested the program and considers “freedom of navigation” a threat to its security.
As a maritime power, China seemingly practices freedom of navigation quite extensively. All states, including China, are the beneficiaries of navigational freedom. The Chinese People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLA-N), as well as merchant vessels have all travelled well beyond its immediate waters, i.e. the South China Sea and East China Sea.
In 2014, various reports showed that over 20 Chinese nuclear submarines had enjoyed freedom of navigation, sailing from their base near Hainan through Indonesian archipelagic waters and maneuvered in the Indian Ocean, including making stops in the famously Chinese-built port of Hambantota, Sri Lanka.
Chinese frigates have also made similar trips through Indonesian waters as seen by Indonesian authorities from several choke points controlled by it. These trips would be impossible without freedom of navigation.
A similar PLA-N operation to surround Indonesia and the Philippines from Hainan to Hainan via the South China Sea, Sunda Strait, Indian Ocean, Lombok Strait, Pacific Ocean and Philippines Sea can only be exercised under a freedom of navigation regime.
Freedom of navigation is not exclusively for government ships, but also for commercial vessels. With a plan to expand PLA-N fleet to over 350 warships by 2020, and operation of almost 5,000 merchant vessels, China will exercise freedom of navigation more than any country in the world does.