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Chinese admiral contests freedom of navigation in South China Sea

Secretary of Defense Ash Carter greets Chinese Adm. Sun Jianguo in Singapore, in June 2016. The senior Chinese admiral rejected freedom of navigation for military ships at a recent forum, despite views held by the United States and most other nations that such freedom is codified by international law.

TIM GODBEE/DEFENSE DEPARTMENT

By ERIK SLAVIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: July 19, 2016

YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — A senior Chinese admiral has rejected freedom of navigation for military ships, despite views held by the United States and most other nations that such access is codified by international law.

The comments by Adm. Sun Jianguo, deputy chief of China’s joint staff, come at a time when the U.S. Navy is particularly busy operating in the South China Sea, amid tensions over sea and territorial rights between China and many of its neighbors in the Asia-Pacific region.

“When has freedom of navigation in the South China Sea ever been affected? It has not, whether in the past or now, and in the future there won’t be a problem as long as nobody plays tricks,” Sun said at a closed forum in Beijing on Saturday, according to a transcript obtained by Reuters.

“But China consistently opposes so-called military freedom of navigation, which brings with it a military threat and which challenges and disrespects the international law of the sea,” Sun said.

International authorities contest both of Sun’s points.

The Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled July 12 that “Chinese law enforcement vessels had unlawfully created a serious risk of collision when they physically obstructed Philippine vessels.”

The PCA decision, part of a Philippine case three years in the making, ruled against China on 14 of 15 claims related to the South China Sea. It also ruled that China’s claim to exclusive, “historic rights” to nearly 90 percent of the area violates the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea.

China has stated that it will ignore the court decision, despite a clause within UNCLOS — which China has ratified — that binds it to the ruling.

The U.S. has conducted freedom-of-navigation operations close to submerged reefs that China has topped with landfill, military-grade runways, radar and weaponry. The PCA ruled that some of the artificial islands are not claimable as land.

“This kind of military freedom of navigation is damaging to freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, and it could even play out in a disastrous way,” Sun added without elaborating, according to Reuters.

More than $5 trillion in trade transits the South China Sea annually. About $1.2 trillion of that is U.S. trade, according to Census Bureau statistics.

No clause within UNCLOS mentions restricting military ships that are only passing through territorial waters, though some Asian nations maintain that consent is required.

Freedom of navigation for all ships is an “overarching interest” reflected in several parts of the sea treaty, Navy Cmdr. Jonathan Odom, a law professor at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, wrote in March.

Odom cited a supporting speech by Singaporean diplomat Tommy Koh, who served as the UNCLOS conference president during the past three years of negotiations.

“I think the convention is quite clear on this point,” Koh said. “Warships do, like other ships, have a right of innocent passage through the territorial sea, and there is no need for warships to acquire prior consent or even notification of the coastal state.”

Amendments to UNCLOS that would have imposed restrictions on military ships were withdrawn at the time, according to the 2012 book "Excessive Maritime Claims," which cited U.N. records.

U.S. officials say China has sailed its military craft through U.S. territorial waters unannounced, including a time when it came within 12 nautical miles of Alaska last year.

U.S. ships operate a combined 700 days per year in the South China Sea, Pacific Fleet commander Adm. Scott Swift has stated repeatedly at press conferences during the past year.

About 75 percent of the ships homeported at the 7th Fleet’s headquarters in Yokosuka are at sea. Several of them, including the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan, are in the South China Sea.

Naval officials contend they will continue to operate in the Western Pacific and wherever international law allows.

Sun’s remarks came shortly before Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson met with China naval chief Adm. Wu Shengli in Beijing on Monday.

Discussions on safe operations under international law were “frank and substantive,” a Navy statement said.

slavin.erik@stripes.com

Twitter: @eslavin_stripes

An MH-60R Seahawk takes off from the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan in July 2016 in the South China Sea. A Chinese admiral said military vessels do not have the right to freedom of navigation, a position legal experts say conflicts with international law.
NATHAN BURKE/U.S. NAVY

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