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U.S. Operation In South China Sea Challenges China's Claim Over Artificial Islands


The U.S. carried out dozens of naval operations every year to challenge territorial claims by countries, and many of them are in Asia. NPR's Jackie Northam explains the background.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: The U.S. basis for maneuvers in the South China sea is the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. The convention, which the U.S. has not ratified, says that countries can claim territorial waters up to 12 nautical miles from their coast or from islands they control. But reefs that China has been building far out into the South China Sea used to be under water at high tide and so are considered artificial islands.

MIRA RAPP-HOOPER: Under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, low-lying reefs like these are not entitled to any kind of territorial waters, nor are they even subject to sovereignty claims by countries.

NORTHAM: Mira Rapp-Hooper, an Asia specialist at the Center for a New American Security, says what the U.S. guided missile destroyer did was challenge China's territorial claim over those artificial islands.

RAPP-HOOPER: By sailing through these waters within 12 nautical miles, the United States is demonstrating that it does not recognize that China can claim any kind of territorial waters from these islands.

NORTHAM: The U.S. considers that the artificial islands built by China are in international waters. Even if they weren't, the Navy would still sail through, says John Bellinger, a former legal advisor at the State Department. He says the U.S. and China have differing views over the interpretation of the Law of the Sea. He says the U.S. believes a navy has the right to freely transit the territorial seas of any country.

JOHN BELLINGER: China's position is that in our territorial sea, a foreign navy may only transit the territorial sea if it gets our consent first.

NORTHAM: The U.S. did not protest this summer when Chinese ships passed within 12 nautical miles off Alaska. The Pentagon said it expects operations like today's to become more frequent in the South China Sea. Bellinger says Washington wants to make the point that building up reefs and rocks won't prevent freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.

BELLINGER: If they build more reefs or add more bases throughout the South China Seas and claim each of those creates a 12-nautical-mile territorial sea, the Chinese could, in the U.S. view, essentially lock the United States and any other country out of the entire South China Sea.

NORTHAM: Through which more than $5 trillion worth of global trade passes each year. Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.