The US military will continue to operate “wherever” international law allows in the South China Sea, a US admiral has said.
“International seas and airspace belong to everyone and are not the dominion of any single nation,” US Admiral Harry Harris said, according to prepared remarks for a speech at the Stanford Center at Peking University.
“Our military will continue to fly, sail, and operate whenever and wherever international law allows. The South China Sea is not and will not be an exception,” he added.
Harris is the commander of the US Pacific Command and his public declaration in the Chinese capital is a mark of US resolve over the strategically vital waterway, where Beijing has built up rocks and reefs into artificial islands with facilities for military use.
This comes after a US Navy destroyer sailed close to artificial islands built by China in the disputed waters of the South China Sea in defiance of China. Destroyer USS Lassen breached the 12-nautical mile zone China claims around its artificial islands in the Spratly archipelago.
The freedom of navigation operation represents a serious challenge to China’s territorial claims. Freedom of navigation is a principle of international law that ships flying the flag of any sovereign state shall not suffer interference from other states. This right is also codified in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. However, not all UN member states have ratified the convention; notably, the United States has signed, but not ratified the convention.
China had responded to the US for ignoring repeated warnings and allowing one of its destroyers to sail close to the artificial islands.
A statement posted on China’s Foreign Ministry website says:
“These actions of the US warship are a threat to the sovereignty and security of China, and safety of people living on the islands; they damage peace and stability in the region. In this regard, the Chinese side expresses extreme dissatisfaction and strongly protests.”
Under international law, a state’s territorial waters extend 12 nautical miles from its shore. However, the US and others argue that this rule cannot apply to artificial islands.
Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam, members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, also claim parts of the sea. Taiwan is a sixth claimant.