From our Actuality podcast: Marketplace talks with Quartz about territorial disputes in the South China Sea
The United States Navy and Air Force, you may have noticed, have been taking some trips to the South China Sea recently.
Last month a guided missile destroyer, the USS Lassen, passed within 12 nautical miles of Subi Reef, an artificial island built atop a reef by Chinese engineers. This week it was a pair of B-52 bombers that flew over another artificial reef.
These movements are not accidental. They’re being conducted to make a point about the rules of the game in international waters.
“The US since 1979 has a policy to operationally challenge countries that make excessive claims under the law of the sea, claims that are unlawful,” said James Kraska, professor of international law at the U.S. Naval War College.
The widely accepted rules of the game under the UN Convention on Laws of the Sea, when it comes to islands, are as follows.
“Rocks that cannot sustain human habitation are entitled to a 12-mile territorial sea, as well as the air space above the territorial sea,” Kraska said. The rocks have to be above water at high tide.
Rocks that can sustain human habitation, known as islands, “may generate a 200-mile exclusive economic zone,” Kraska said. That means a country with a claim to that island has the exclusive right to all the fishing, mining and oil 200 miles out. The 200-mile zone does not entitle a country to prevent what’s known as “innocent passage” of ships by other countries.