Earlier this month, five Chinese naval warships entered U.S. territorial waters off the coast of Alaska. In acknowledging the transit of these vessels, the United States made clear we viewed this action as well within the rights of China — and any other nation — to conduct innocent passage through the legitimately established territorial seas and nonthreatening military activities within the exclusive economic zone of another country.
This reaction stands in stark contrast to what has been happening recently in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. Over the past two years, China has embarked on an aggressive campaign to turn barren rocks into 2,000 acres of full-fledged artificial islands capable of hosting a range of long-range military activities. Even more concerning, it is increasingly possible China will use these artificial islands as a basis to assert wider, but legally unfounded, claims over vast swaths of the waters and airspace within this already highly contested area.
It should be lost on no one that China is trying to have it both ways — benefiting from the protection under international law known as the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, or UNCLOS, to operate and transit near our territory in the first example, but ignoring that same agreement to make excessive and unfounded maritime claims that only serve to further undermine good order on the seas in the second.
I count myself among those in Congress who believe that a robust, forward-leaning response is needed to ensure responsible maritime nations in the region adhere to the rule of law. This includes increased freedom of navigation operations that rebuff any claim to territorial or economic rights for artificial land formations, while continuing to make clear the freedom of any nation’s military to operate outside of another’s territorial waters.
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