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South China Sea
Beijing’s Threat to Freedom of Navigation

Chinese ambassador to the Philippines Zhao Jianhua was asked about China’s rationale for warning away a U.S. surveillance plane with a CNN crew aboard back in May. In reply, he laid out China’s thinking about land reclamation projects, its claims to 12 mile exclusion zones, and the small matter of how it thinks about the “freedom and navigation” of the ships that carry almost a third of the world’s trade through the waters that China says are its sovereign territory. An AP report, republished by the Military Times, has the story. It bears quoting at length:

When asked why China shooed away the U.S. Navy plane when it has pledged to respect freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, Zhao outlined the limits in China’s view.

“Freedom of navigation does not mean to allow other countries to intrude into the airspace or the sea which is sovereign. No country will allow that,” Zhao said. “We say freedom of navigation must be observed in accordance with international law. No freedom of navigation for warships and airplanes.

Zhao also repeated an earlier pronouncement by Beijing that China’s use of land reclamation to create new islands at a number of disputed Spratly reefs has ended. China, he said, would now start constructing facilities to support freedom of navigation, search and rescue efforts when accidents occur, and scientific research.

“When we say we’re going to stop reclamation, we mean it,” Zhao said.

He acknowledged that “necessary defense facilities” would also be constructed. […]

Adm. Scott Swift, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, said last month in Manila that Washington does not recognize any of the territorial claims and its position won’t change even if disputed areas are reinforced by construction work. [Emphasis added]

Even if China is just bluffing, it’s hard to overstate how aggressive and dangerous this policy is. Threatening to do what it would take to deny U.S. warships and airplanes (not to mention Vietnamese and Philippine ones) access to either the area within China’s “nine-dash line” or the exclusion zones China illegitimately claims around its freshly built islands in the Spratly chain constitutes, in effect, a threat of war. Washington, for its part, shows every sign that it’s going to stick with its current strategy of intentionally violating these areas in order to demonstrate its non-recognition of Beijing’s claims. Where does this lead?

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  • Blackbeard

    “Washington, for its part, shows every sign that it’s going to stick with its current strategy of intentionally violating these areas in order to demonstrate its non-recognition of Beijing’s claims. Where does this lead?”

    Where it leads, with this president at least, is to us backing down. Would Hillary be any better? I doubt it. And by the time we have someone in the White House that understands foreign relations, assuming we ever do, China’s land grab will be a fiat accompli and impossible to reverse.

    The Fall of the West, Chapter XXIII.

    • Anthony1223

      “The 19th century belonged to England, the 20th century belonged to the U.S., and the 21st century belongs to China. Invest accordingly.”
      -Warren Buffett, famous American investor

  • qet

    Given the inclinations of our current President, I would think it to be in China’s interest to make good on that threat sometime in the next 15 or so months. They may never get a better opportunity. Surely they have learned from the US where a policy of idle threats leads.

  • Anthony1223

    Excerpt from Malcolm Fraser: AUSTRALIA HOSTAGE to an AMERICAN AGENDA to Contain China.
    The United States now talks as though China may wish to curtail freedom of the seas in the South China Sea. That sounds like an absurd allegation. It is an important waterway for trade involving many countries. I am advised that two-thirds of China’s own trade goes through the South China Sea and much of it in foreign-registered ships. China and the United States have an equal interest in preserving freedom of the seas. The United States does not need a military build-up to maintain that. It also worth recalling that China has ratified the Law of the Sea, while the United States has not.

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