Many of us were at least mildly encouraged this October when the USS Lassen, a guided-missile destroyer, sailed within twelve nautical miles of Subi Reef, one of the man-made “islands” — actually, they’re military installations — that China has built upon reefs hundreds of miles out into the South China Sea.
China has been very clear that it considers the reclaimed reefs, their surrounding waters, and indeed virtually the entire South China Sea, an area twice the size of Alaska, as its territorial waters. The United States has contested that claim, at least on a rhetorical basis, and insists, quite correctly, that under international law a nation cannot extend its sovereign territory by constructing concrete islands in international waters.
In response to China’s actions, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter declared in May that “the United States will fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows, as U.S. forces do all over the world.” It took five months for the administration to back up that declaration, but it finally appeared to have done so when the Lassen sailed close to Subi Reef in what we all assumed was a Freedom of Navigation operation.
But Dean Cheng of the Heritage Foundation has pointed out that the Lassen voyage, far from effectively contesting China’s sovereignty claims, may actually have validated them, because when the Lassen passed by Subi Reef it turned off its radar and grounded its helicopters. If so, that would make the sailing not a Freedom of Navigation patrol but an “innocent passage.”
The point is not arcane. When naval vessels sail in international waters, they are free to conduct normal operations. When they want to sail through another country’s territorial waters, they must make an “innocent passage” by severely curtailing their normal range of activities. That appears to be just what the Lassen did, and if so, the effect of the voyage was to recognize de facto that Subi Reef is Chinese territory, in contradiction to international law and America’s declared policy, and to the detriment of America’s vital national interests in the region.
About a year ago the White House circulated the story that the basic rule of its foreign policy was “don’t do stupid stuff.” I wish that the administration were capable of following that rule. It would have been far better not to send the Lassen to Subi Reef at all than to have it sail in a way that quietly but effectively acknowledged to Beijing that the reef is now part of China.
I urge those interested in the subject to read Cheng’s entire article as well as this piece.