U.S. Ambiguity Strengthens Beijing in the South China Sea


Are the United States and China collaborating to rewrite the international law of the sea? If so, it would be an odd but potent combination with ominous global implications.

China is a member of the United Nations Law of the Sea Convention, but regularly violates its provisions. The United States has not ratified UNCLOS, but has been its chief enforcer on behalf of freedom of navigation and world commerce. They would seem to be on opposite sides of the international legal regime.

Beijing pushes the envelope almost every day by asserting sovereignty over virtually the entire South China Sea, making unprecedented maritime claims and building and using artificial islands to claim further rights to newly created “territorial seas.”

In the face of Beijing’s constant overreaching, American officials have repeatedly put forth traditional arguments defending freedom of navigation and overflight under UNCLOS and customary international law. But rhetoric aside, for years Washington has been relatively passive as China builds facts on the ground and on the water.

In the face of mounting Congressional and expert pressure, the United States finally began taking steps to assert its navigational and overflight rights. Unfortunately, Washington’s ambiguous, confusing and contradictory response has raised new questions about U.S. seriousness and commitment.

When China unilaterally declared an Air Defense Identification Zone in the East China Sea last year, Washington dispatched two unarmed B-52s to the zone to assert freedom of overflight. But unlike Japan, it also directed U.S. commercial aircraft to comply with China’s notification “requirements.”