After months of debate and accusations of fecklessness, the U.S. appears ready to challenge China’s island-building in the South China Sea. The question is how.
At issue are new islands the Chinese have created by dredging thousands of tons of sand to expand various reefs and rocks in the Spratly archipelago. China claims nearly 80 percent of the South China Sea, based on a “nine-dash line” map that isn’t recognized by any other nation. The U.S. takes no position on competing territorial claims, but insists that they be resolved peacefully and in accordance with international law. The fear is that China plans to use its newly created islands as beachheads from which to assert control over a swath of ocean far from its shores.
The voices calling for action want the U.S. Navy to sail warships within 12 nautical miles of the new islands, challenging the notion that China can conjure up sovereign territory out of nothing. It’s not a bad idea. A high-profile challenge might pressure the Chinese government to clarify just what it’s claiming and under what legal justification.
For the gesture to be effective, however, the U.S. (which hasn’t ratified the United Nations’ Convention on the Law of the Sea but largely adheres to its principles) must be sure of its legal footing. Reclaiming land isn’t in itself illegal; countries such as Vietnam have done their own dredging, although none on the same scale and at the same speed as China. The question is more technical: whether, before reclamation, whatever maritime feature existed was visible at high tide. Submerged bodies aren’t entitled to territorial waters.