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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