Immediately after reports surfaced that the U.S. Navy was planning to send warships within 12 nautical miles of the disputed Spratly Islands, China hit back at Washington. The Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Beijing would “never allow any country to violate China’s territorial waters and airspace in the Spratly Islands.” She blamed “some countries” for “flexing their military muscles again and again.”
China’s aggressive land reclamation activities in the South China Sea have alarmed its neighbors. It has been transforming reefs and shoals, many of them submerged, into artificial islands. It has also built three airstrips in the Spratlys that can accommodate most Chinese fighter aircraft. Many of China’s neighbors including Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan, and the Philippines have overlapping claims.
Washington has refused to recognize the artificial islands in Spratlys. It will be sending ships close to the islands to preserve freedom of navigation. The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and other international laws allow a country to claim the 12-nautical miles band of territorial water only if features were visible above water at high tide before reclamation.
South China Sea is no exception to international laws
While the U.S. is preparing to send warships, officials in Beijing are working overtime to make sure that “an incursion by the US Navy” doesn’t occur. Last week, the South China Morning Post said the Second Artillery of PLA could fire on American ships if they conduct freedom of navigation exercise. Last month, China sent its warships close to Alaska, and now it thinks that the U.S. must not sail close to China’s artificial features.
On Tuesday, U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter sent a clear signal to China. He said the U.S will sail, fly and operate wherever international laws allow and the South China Sea will not be an exception. Now the U.S policymakers have two options. They can back down and accept that Beijing is above all the international laws. Or go ahead and preserve the freedom of navigation and risk direct military confrontation. Military sources told the Wall Street Journal that the freedom of navigation operation will occur soon.