Navigation freedom no excuse for interference
The United States was back again in the South China Sea recently, this time with a muscle-flexing navy fleet in a greater show of strength. The USNavy John C. Stennis strike group exited the South China Sea onMarch 6 after six days of debut “routine operations” since its regularly scheduled deployment began Jan 15, putting the AsiaPacific region on high alert and leaving many wondering what are the signals behind the move and what impact it will have on regional peace and stability.
The first striking point about the US military deployment is that it was accompanied by an unusually high-profile media coverage. Unlike the previous nearly unnoticed mission, the US Navy spokesperson, unnamed military officials and military experts have released awave of information both before and after the operation. The carefully designed media coverage apparently shows the US wanted its “operation” to be trumpeted so that it could enhance the perception of its military presence in the region.
Another sensitive issue is the timing of the US operation. Tensions have been rising since the US military sent its vessels close to and flewits aircraft over China’s islands in the South China Sea. Now, the deployment of a US aircraft carrier and escort ships— seemingly because, as the US claims, “China is militarizing the region to guard its excessive territorial claims”— will heighten the tensions. An aircraft carrier entering regional waters without any reason certainly cannot have peaceful intentions.
Sticking to its stance on its previous maneuvers in the South China Sea, the US has also emphasized that the new operation is routine. The US has claimed its ships and aircraft have been operating freely for decades in theWestern Pacific— including the South China Sea. But that does not sound convincing.
It is true that the US has long maintained a strong military presence in the region. But now it is in the process of deploying 60 percent of its warships and military aircraft in the Asia-Pacific as part of its “pivot to Asia” policy, which could seriously affect the regional balance of power.
More importantly, the operations and attitude of the US military are becoming more provocative, hostile and aggressive, as proved by its recent incursions into the waters near China’s islands and reefs in the South China Sea. And since it is the US that is actually “militarizing” the South China Sea, China has to adapt its policies to the changing situation in the region. HowChina will respond depends largelyonUS intentionsandbehavior. If theUS military vesselsandaircraft travel thousands of miles just to create trouble, China has the inherent right to selfdefense as guaranteed by the UNCharterandother international laws. If theUS military vessels and aircraft transit this area in line with international law, the exercise of the freedom of navigation is guaranteed to every country under the UNConvention on the Lawof the Sea. However, even the UNConvention on the Lawof the Sea fails to provide explicit regulations on activities involving “innocent passage” of warships through territorial seas. More than 40 countries’ domestic maritime laws require foreign warships to give prior notice or obtain prior authorization before entering their territorial waters. And it will be baseless if theUS tries to use “freedom of navigation” as an excuse to interfere in the regional sea disputes.
Other regional countries— particularly members of the Association of Southeast AsianNations, many of which may not be willing to choose sides— cannot remain unaffected by the rising tensions. So, they should play a more responsible and positive role to defuse the tensions.
TheUS could easily pull out its military from the area after inciting a conflict and leaving China and other regional countries to pay the price for its actions. Therefore, all regional countries have to make concerted efforts to maintain peace in the South China Sea.
The author is a research fellow at the Collaborative Innovation Center of South China Sea Studies, Nanjing University.