After weeks of signaling that it would initiate freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs), the U.S. Navy is set to deploy the USS Lassen, an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, within 12 nautical miles of China’s man-made islands in the South China Sea. Reuters, citing a U.S. defense official, confirmed that operations were set to begin “within 24 hours” of its report, suggesting that the Lassen will sail near the Chinese artificial islands sometime on Tuesday, October 27, local time. Per the Reuters report, the Lassen will be accompanied by a P-8A Poseidon maritime surveillance aircraft. A P-3 Orion surveillance aircraft may support the Lassen as well.
The report confirms that the Lassen will sail only within 12 nautical miles of Subi and Mischief reefs in the Spratly archipelago in the South China Sea. Subi and Mischief represent two of seven features where China has carried out substantial land reclamation and construction work. The two features are distinct from the other five features where China has carried out similar work, including Cuarteron, Gaven, Fiery Cross, Johnson South, and Hughes reefs, because the original reefs, prior to China’s island-building, were fully underwater at low tide.
Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), low-tide elevations receive no special consideration that would grant them rights to a 12 nautical mile territorial sea. Similarly, artificial islands are not entitled to a 12 nautical mile territorial sea, but are instead treated like oil rigs and similar installations, entitling them to a 500 meter safety zone. Thus, the Lassen will sail within 12 nautical miles of Subi and Mischief but will likely avoid entering the 500 meter safety zone.