In August, China and Russia conducted a large bilateral naval exercise called Joint Sea 2015 II in the Sea of Japan. The exercise concerned some observers for what it implied about a solidifying geopolitical block aligned against the U.S. But its location provided the Chinese with another opportunity – to enter the Bering Sea and then transit unannounced through U.S. territorial waters in the Aleutian Island chain.
Chinese operations in the Bering Sea are believed to be unprecedented, and there are numerous political statements that can be read into the transit, which coincided with President Obama’s historic visit to Alaska. But legally, the Chinese were well within their rights; in fact a right the United States has long defended both for itself and others. What makes the Chinese transit of the Aleutians provocative to some is an apparent hypocrisy. While the U.S. takes a maximalist and institution-based position on the maritime rights of all nations, China is comparatively selective; it enjoys its full maritime rights internationally while routinely attempting to deny similar rights to nations transiting or operating in and near its waters.
In passing through the Aleutians, the Chinese were exercising a treaty right called innocent passage. Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), ships may transit the territorial waters of another nation so long as the transit is not “prejudicial to the peace, good order or security of the coastal state.” As such, military and government vessels exercising innocent passage are prohibited from engaging in threatening activities like weapons drills, surveillance, aircraft operations, etc. Fueling Sino-US tensions are disagreements about claims and limits under UNCLOS, and special areas like Air Defense Identification Zones (ADIZ) that are not governed by treaty.