(Nikkei: October 29, 2015 – p. 2)
Tension is intensifying in the South China Sea after a U.S. naval vessel navigated near an artificial island built by China. China should abide by international rules and take responsible actions to ease tension.
China has reclaimed seven reefs and built artificial islands on them in the Spratly Islands, the sovereignty of which is being disputed by China and its neighbors. It is building military facilities on these islands and claiming waters within 12 nautical miles of the islands are its territorial sea.
The U.S. sent an Aegis Ship to navigate within 12 nautical miles of the artificial island built on the Subi Reef. It purposely deployed a naval vessel without China’s permission to stress its position that it does not recognize the artificial islands as China’s territory.
The Chinese government has reacted strongly and threatened to “take all necessary measures.” The conflict is intensifying. However, the U.S. is clearly in the right under international law.
The Subi Reef is a coral reef that is submerged during high tide. Building an artificial island does not make it an island with territorial waters under international law.
Even if the U.S. Aegis Ship had navigated within Chinese territorial waters, China’s position would still be shaky. An important international rule allows “innocent passage” that does not compromise order in the coastal states.
Even on this point, China has no conceivable legal basis for decrying the U.S. forces’ action.
The U.S. Department of Defense has announced that it plans to continue this operation in the South China Sea in the next weeks or months. If China attempts to prevent U.S. ships from approaching the artificial islands, this may trigger unforeseen incidents.
It is necessary for China to abide by international rules and respect “freedom of passage,” in the first place, and stop building artificial islands to avoid further heightening of tension in the South China Sea.
The South China Sea is a main thoroughfare for the transport of a substantial volume of crude oil and liquefied natural gas (LNG) traded in the world. Instability in this sea area will immediately have a serious impact on the world economy.
A solution cannot be found through pressure alone; dialogue is also indispensable. An enlarged ASEAN defense ministers’ meeting will be held in early November and Japan, the U.S., and China will participate in this meeting. Japan should take advantage of this opportunity to cooperate with the U.S. and ASEAN countries to urge China to exercise restraint.