After weeks of Hamlet-esque public debate, U.S. defense officials ordered Aegis destroyer USS Lassen to cruise within 12 nautical miles (nm) of Subi Reef on Oct. 27.
The reef is an undersea rock in the South China Sea that Beijing has built into an artificial island in the contested Spratly Islands. It wants it to be considered a real island, with a “territorial sea” surrounding it. That means a 12-nm zone where Chinese domestic law prevails, just like Beijing.
China claims it has the right to do so based on “historic” claims to most of the South China Sea, an area through which $5 trillion dollars worth of trade passes.
By sending a warship within that zone, the U.S. Navy signaled that the United States rejects efforts to rewrite the rules governing the sea and sky. International law clearly states the open sea is no one’s property, and such “freedom-of-navigation” voyages are standard fare elsewhere in the seven seas. And the Lassen’s cruise can’t be a one-time trip without giving China another opportunity to assert its unlawful authority.
The nice thing about the law of the sea is that it’s well written. The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), says coastal states may construct artificial islands within “exclusive economic zones” extending 200 nautical miles off their coasts. Beyond that limit, the law allows no such projects.
Now fire up Google Earth. Subi Reef lies 500 nautical miles from Hainan Island, the nearest Chinese shoreline. It sits far closer to the Philippines — only 230 nautical miles from the island of Palawan. Manila, then, has a better legal claim than Beijing by sheer geographic proximity — but even Philippine land “reclamation” there would be outside the law.
Subi Reef was a submerged atoll before Chinese engineers dredged up the sea floor to create an island, and then topped it off with an airstrip. This manufactured turf has no legal status — yet Beijing is trying to give it legal status by fiat.
An artificial island that falls within a country’s exclusive economic zone merits a concentric 500-meter safety zone. That’s next to nothing in navigation and piloting terms. If it falls beyond the zone, like Subi Reef, it merits nothing at all — much less a 12-nautical-mile territorial sea. Indeed, Lassen could have ventured as close to Subi Reef as its skipper dared while still remaining within the law.