Hypocrisy at Sea at sea, even China argues its own behavior is illegal.


Every nation is hypocritical. Just like every man. There are, of course, differences in magnitude. Such as right now: China tells other navies not to sail through its waters—as it sails through theirs.

In July, China sent two ships to sit off the coasts of Alaska, United States, and Queensland, Australia. Because the two were “intelligence-gathering ships” and they watched military activities, their stationing off the coast counts as “military activities.”

Once the Chinese vessels were discovered, the Americans and the Australians did nothing. U.S. Navy Capt. Scott Miller “would not speculate on the reasons” it was there when asked by cnn. According to the Sydney Morning Herald, Australia’s Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop “played down [its] presence.”

Here’s the surprise: The two countries think it’s totally fine. Based on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (unclos), China’s actions were completely legal.

Here’s the hypocrisy: China argues its own behavior is illegal.

This is of more than just academic interest. China claims that it is merely upholding the spirit of the international law in waters. Is it true? Or is China an expansionist power searching for excuses?

‘Constitution for the Ocean’

A little history: The unclos is a document which took the United Nations nearly 10 years to write. When it was ratified by 119 nations in 1982, its authors called it a “Constitution for the Ocean.” In 1994, U.S. President Bill Clinton signed an unclos agreement, but it was never ratified by the U.S. Senate. It remains unratified today.

China ratified the unclos in 1996. So when disputes on the sea arise, you’ll often hear an accusation from China: “How can the nation which hasn’t ratified the treaty chastise us?”

unclos defines the area within 200 nautical miles of a country’s coast as the “Exclusive Economic Zone” (eez). A country has the right to that area’s resources, but it doesn’t have control over “military activities” that take place within it.

China disagrees. As the Diplomat explained, “Beijing contends that military activities … on the high seas [the open ocean] and in the eez are unlawful based on the legislative spirit of unclos and a requirement from that treaty that the high seas be used only for peaceful purposes.”