A tale of two interpretations of freedom of navigation: China Daily columnist

The USS Curtis Wilbur, which sailed within 12 nautical miles of an island claimed by China on Jan 30, 2016.
The USS Curtis Wilbur, which sailed within 12 nautical miles of an island claimed by China on Jan 30, 2016.PHOTO: REUTERS

By Zhou Bo

China Daily/Asia News Network

The US believes China's Meiji and Zhubi reefs are "artificial islands" that are not entitled to 12 nautical mile territorial seas.

However, innocent passage can only be made through territorial waters, according to UNCLOS.

When the US announced that the USS Lassen made an "innocent passage" within 12 nautical miles of Meiji and Zhubi, some in the US criticised the US Navy for tacitly recognising China' sovereignty. The US tries to look "innocent" in its provocations. It also attempts to trade "innocence" with China. As if to lay ground for planned operations to come, the Pentagon described Chinese naval ships transiting the Aleutian Islands last September as innocent passage, in other words, China should reciprocate by allowing US vessels to sail in its territorial waters one day.

It even praised the Chinese ship monitoring the USS Lassen for being professional. But the Chinese Ministry of Defence quickly pointed out its naval task force transiting Aleutian Islands was conducting transit passage rather than innocent passage in an international sea lane.

No matter how bullish the US might seem, it has a deep sense of insecurity about what it considers China's "salami-slicing" militarisation of the South China Sea: land reclamation being China's first step, which will lead, if unchecked, to China's announcement of an Air Defense Identification Zone, occupation of other uninhabited land, or the taking of Ren'ai Reef on which the Philippines deliberately grounded a vessel.

Its worst-case scenario being China finally turns the South China Sea into a Chinese lake and drives the US out of the Western Pacific.

But China can effortlessly point out it is the US that is now militarising the South China Sea. With the implementation of its rebalancing strategy to deploy 60 per cent of its air and naval forces in the Asia-Pacific by 2020, the US has clearly decided to step up its military presence in the region.

The recent sail-throughs by the USS Lassen and the USS Curtis Wilbur and the overflights by B-52 bombers have only increased the tensions in the region. The US has added more wood to the fire by encouraging its allies Japan and Australian to patrol in the South China Sea.

And all this is in addition to the military assets deployed by other claimants. China's land reclamation is only on China-controlled islands and reefs. It is not prohibited by any international law. And it is not meant to challenge the US. But should the US provocations continue, Beijing may feel it has to respond decisively. One of the options is to increase its own military presence in the South China Sea. The South China Sea's militarisation would then become a self-filling prophecy.

The South China Sea issue is not an issue between China and the US, but unfortunately it is looming large as one. The best agreement at present on freedom of navigation would be to disagree and maintain self-restraint. Admiral Harris's remarks are not helpful in avoiding the miscalculations that neither China nor the US wants to see.

The author is an honorary fellow with the Center of China-American Defense Relations, Academy of Military Science.