Last Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2015, the U.S. Navy’s guided-missile destroyer, Lassen, ventured within 12 nautical miles of the Spratly Islands.
The order came all the way from the top, approved by President Obama and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in an effort to reaffirm the United States’ dedication to upholding the international laws of the sea.
These laws are set forth in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), under which nations have territorial waters 12 nm out from their shores and a 200 nm exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
A country’s territorial waters are treated as sovereign land, and countries are free to restrict movement through them as much as they desire.
Similarly, though countries must ensure safe navigation through their EEZ, they can restrict economic endeavours within the zone, such as fishing or drilling for oil.
Thus the purpose of the maneuver by the US was to reinforce one of the caveats in the UNCLOS, which states that artificial islands or reefs do not have their own 12 nm territorial waters around them.
The move was a direct challenge to China, which in the past year has raised a number of artificial islands in the Spratlys, notably the Fiery Cross Reef.
Previously, many of these reefs were submerged during high-tide, which excluded them from conferring territorial water status to the ocean around them.
According to the UNCLOS, they still don’t confer that benefit, meaning that any ship should be able to navigate as close to the artificial islands as it wants.
China, however, has stated that it believes the islands deserve the 12 nm of territorial waters, and that it does not respect the authority of the UNCLOS.
That was the immediate impetus behind the decision to move a U.S. Navy ship so close: to demonstrate to China that the U.S. respects and enforces the UNCLOS, and that it won’t tolerate nations attempting to illegally block sections of ocean.
The move is part of a broader attempt by the U.S. to reign in an increasingly aggressive and expansionist China.
The East Asian powerhouse is looking to vastly expand both its territorial waters and its EEZ. China has historically made a sweeping claim to essentially all of the South China Sea, as defined by its “nine-dashed line” model.
The claim, which extends down to the tips of Vietnam and Malaysia, encompasses a number of small island chains and reefs.
More importantly, it also extends much farther than the 200 nm allotted to China, and overlaps with the EEZs of other nations in the region.
In order to reinforce her claim, China has been building artificial islands in the Spratlys and proclaiming these to be extensions of her mainland.
More significantly, the People’s Liberation Army has been building air and naval bases on the new islands, which allows China to project its military might much farther.
On the Fiery Cross Reef, the biggest of the newly constructed islands, the PLA has even built an airstrip capable of launching long-distance bombers.
In the face of this aggressive expansion, many countries in the region, particularly the Philippines, have sought the aid of the U.S. in maintaining their own EEZs.
As the foremost naval power in the world, the U.S. undoubtedly has the ability to enforce the international laws which China is currently walking over. Moreover, it feels as though the U.S. has the duty to do so.
For America’s own sake, the sake of her allies and the international order, there must be some way of enforcing the UNCLOS so that all nations stand on equal ground when making territorial claims.
Only by demonstrating that there is someone will to go to bat for these laws will China respect them, and even only then to a certain extent.
The U.S. feels as if it cannot idly stand by while an aggressive nation bullies its neighbors and disregards international law.
The maneuver executed by the U.S.S. Lassen is an excellent example of the role of the United States in the region.
It provided hard evidence that the U.S. is committed to protecting those international institutions that it set up after WWII, and that these institutions will continue to protect the international underdogs.