U.S. policy on freedom of navigation remains unchanged
Tension is growing following a U.S. Navy Aegis destroyer’s sailing within 12 nautical miles (about 22 kilometers) of artificial islands in the Spratly group, an area which China claims as its “territorial waters” in the South China Sea. Political scientist Joseph Nye, who held important posts in the U.S. government, urged that Japan, which passed the security legislation, should focus on diplomacy rather than a military contribution. (The interviewer is Masakatsu Ota, a member of the editorial committee, Kyodo News).
Q: What is the background of the U.S. government’s decision to have its vessel sail in the area?
Nye: The U.S. stance on the South China Sea is clear. The U.S. will not take a particular position regarding the right of possession over reefs. The area is part of the high seas under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which China also signed. Even if the country piles up sand and rocks, it cannot create territory or territorial waters. Therefore, I want to make clear that even though China creates artificial islands in the area, they will not constitute new territories.
We maintain the policy of freedom of navigation, which was demonstrated by the U.S. destroyer. The same will apply to other waters. The question is, What does the nine-dash line claimed by China mean? I would understand if China only asserts that it has historical interests in the area, but if Beijing claims sovereignty over the area, it is a problem, because such a claim violates the convention.
Q: Why did the U.S. have its vessel sail in the area at this time?
Nye: We have discussed this issue with China since I worked for the Defense Department during 1990s. It was when China built structures on Mischief Reef. This time, China filled in reefs with dirt and claimed sovereignty over them. The U.S. has expressed its opposition to China for more than one year. This issue was discussed during the U.S.-China summit meeting in September. President Obama must have warned Chinese President Xi Jinping that he would soon have a U.S. vessel sail the waters in question to demonstrate the area is not China’s territorial waters but the high seas.
Q: Are you not concerned that further transits by U.S. warships through waters around the artificial islands may raise tensions?
Nye: I am not. China knows that the U.S. does not intend to wage war. In the meantime, the U.S. has made clear its stance of abiding by the principle of international law. China has upheld the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, so it must comply with the convention. The U.S. is not attacking Chinese territory and the transit is not a provocation. The U.S. will continue demonstrating freedom of navigation by sailing through waters near artificial islands that China built or through the high seas near reefs where other countries built structures.
Q: Do you think China will eventually compromise?
Nye: China will eventually have to decide whether or not to compromise. The U.S. will not, however, change its stance that it can sail in any waters recognized by the convention. I hope that neighboring countries including member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and Japan will further deepen their understanding that the South China Sea is administered by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. ASEAN should continue making efforts to create a code of conduct to resolve the territorial dispute.
Q: The fact that Japan passed the security legislation makes it possible for it to provide logistic support to the U.S. military in the South China Sea. How should Japan be involved in this issue including militaristic support?
Nye: I want to make a clear distinction between the South China Sea issue and the East China Sea issue. The U.S. has an explicitly legal commitment to defending the East China Sea under Article 5 of the Japan Security Treaty. As such, Japan and the U.S. must closely cooperate with each other. This was also assured by the president. On the other hand, the South China Sea issue is a multinational matter. The area is administered by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. In the East China Sea, Japan and the U.S. will work together to conduct joint exercises, but Japan’s primary role in the South China Sea issue should be diplomacy.
Joseph Nye: Born in 1937. Received a Ph.D. from Harvard University. From early in his career focused on the importance of interdependence and advocated “soft power.” Held government posts including Deputy to the Under Secretary of State and Assistant Secretary of Defense. Currently Harvard University Distinguished Service Professor.