The Permanent Court of Arbitration, an agency at the United Nations that listens to disputes about the UN’s Law of the Sea, has agreed to hear the Philippines‘ case against China for building military bases on reefs in the South China Sea a thousand miles south of its Mainland. To no one’s surprise, China indicates that it will reject the court’s jurisdiction, which is all the more reason belated American naval patrols in South China sea must continue.
The Obama administration has finally, after pleas from the U.S. Navy, challenged China’s attempt to take over one of the world’s most important naval arteries. China argues that vague 1947 maps of the South China Sea validate its territorial claims to reefs lying athwart the world’s third most important seaway, a lifeline between Asia and the Middle East and Europe. Indeed, the oil traffic alone from the Middle East makes it one of the world’s most critical sea routes.
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The Pentagon finally acknowledged the problem is a serious one, dispatching the USS Lassen, a guided missile destroyer, to sail through the contested waters. The U.S. Navy has two aircraft carriers in the area, shifted from the Middle East as part of the Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia.” The USS Theodore Roosevelt only recently sailed to resupply in Singapore, adjacent to the South China Sea. The USS Ronald Reagan is based in Japan.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter announced that the “Freedom of Action” operations, as the Navy calls the Southeast Asian patrols, would continue. “We will fly, sail and operate wherever international law permits,” he declared. “There have been naval operations in that region in recent days and there will be more in the weeks and months to come.”
The secretary declined to put on record the exact details of the passage, leaving this to the newspapers, which is odd, since the idea was to openly support international law which America has upheld since the earliest days of the republic. Attacks against international shipping persuaded President Thomas Jefferson, after a decade of unsuccessful attempts to persuade the European naval powers to defend commerce in the Mediterranean, to dispatch the U.S. Marines in 1801 to “the shores of Tripoli” to “chastise the insolence” of Tripoli and the Barbary pirates.