U.S. Freedom of Navigation Patrol in the South China Sea

11/05/2015
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This Issue Brief examines the U.S. Navy’s recent freedom of navigation patrol in the South China Sea, and discusses what China, the United States, and the rest of the region might do next in the South China Sea. The last time U.S. military ships and aircraft sailed or flew within 12 nautical miles (nm) of Chinese-occupied features in the Spratly Islands was 2012. On October 27, however, a U.S. Navy guided missile destroyer conducted a freedom of navigation patrol within 12 nm of Subi Reef, a land feature on top of which China has built an artificial island. Reportedly, the patrol “was completed without incident,” though China’s navy sent two ships to monitor and issue warnings to the U.S. destroyer. The U.S. ship also conducted freedom of navigation operations within 12 nm of land features occupied by Vietnam and the Philippines. The objective of the freedom of navigation patrol appears to have been to signal that the U.S government does not consider China to have sovereignty over the 12 nm area of sea adjacent to Subi Reef. Transforming a low-tide elevation into an artificial island does not entitle it to a territorial sea. The patrol did not make a statement about the validity of China’s sovereignty claim over Subi Reef itself.

Tags
Security,
Military,
Regional-Asia and Oceania