U.S and China Scuffle in South China Sea
During the incident, five Chinese vessels “shadowed and aggressively maneuvered in dangerously close proximity to USNS Impeccable, in an apparent coordinated effort to harass the U.S. ocean surveillance ship while it was conducting routine operations in international waters,” the Pentagon said in a written statement.
The crew members aboard the vessels, two of which were within 50 feet, waved Chinese flags and told the U.S. ship to leave the area, the statement said.
“Because the vessels’ intentions were not known, Impeccable sprayed its fire hoses at one of the vessels in order to protect itself,” the statement said. “The Chinese crewmembers disrobed to their underwear and continued closing to within 25 feet.”
After the Impeccable alerted the Chinese ships “in a friendly manner” that it was seeking a safe path to depart the area, two of the Chinese ships stopped “directly ahead of USNS Impeccable, forcing Impeccable to conduct an emergency ‘all stop’ in order to avoid collision,” the statement said.
“They dropped pieces of wood in the water directly in front of Impeccable’s path.”
A Pentagon spokesman called the incident “one of the most aggressive actions we’ve seen in some time. We will certainly let Chinese officials know of our displeasure at this reckless and dangerous maneuver.”
The U.S. Embassy in Beijing lodged a protest over the weekend with the Chinese government, a State Department spokesman said Monday.
The Impeccable’s crew is composed primarily of civilians and the ship itself is not armed, the spokesman said.
The 281.5-foot Impeccable is one of six surveillance ships that perform military survey operations, according to the Navy. It is an oceanographic ship that gathers underwater acoustic data, using sonar.
It has a maximum speed of 13 knots — or about 15 mph — but it travels 3 knots, or 3.5 mph, when towing its array of monitoring equipment. It carries a crew of 20 mariners, five technicians and as many as 20 Navy personnel.
The Chinese ships involved were a Navy intelligence collection ship, a Bureau of Maritime Fisheries Patrol Vessel, a State Oceanographic Administration patrol vessel and two small Chinese-flagged trawlers, the statement said.
The Chinese government has responded emphatically that the U.S. ship had violated China’s 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone under International Law.
According to this WSJ report,
At issue appears to be different views of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. This treaty, which has been ratified by China but not by the U.S. — although Washington accepts most provisions as binding — gives countries territorial waters of 12 nautical miles and economic zones of 200 nautical miles. Foreign ships are allowed to operate in the economic zones, but some countries hold that military ships don’t get free passage.
“U.S. warships are not innocent passage; it is doing something damaging to China’s interests,” said Yang Yi, director of the Institute for Strategic Studies at China’s National Defense University, which has close ties to China’s military.
This Time article reported,
“China considers that international law only allows innocent passage for military vessels in its zone, not activities that could be considered to have a military purpose,” said Shen Dingli, director of the Center of American Studies at Shanghai’s Fudan University.
That clashes with one of the cardinal principles of America’s doctrine of ocean navigation: the right to unrestricted passage in international waters as long as vessels are not encroaching on the economic interests of the country it is passing.
While the U.S. has offered talks on the issue, neither side appears willing to compromise.
China has recorded at least 200 instances of U.S. vessels collecting intelligence in China’s exclusive economic zone, but generally chose to avoid confrontation, said Guan Jianqiang, an international law expert at Shanghai’s East China University of Politics and Law.
The latest incident had overtones of spycraft, but the U.S. ship is not, strictly speaking, a spy ship. It maps the ocean floor with sonar, compiling information the Navy can use to steer its own submarines or track those of other nations.
Hainan hosts numerous naval and air force installations and is the home of Beijing’s newest submarine base. An overall naval upgrade is adding advanced missile destroyers, diesel electric submarines, and possibly one or more aircraft carriers in coming years.
The U.S. and others are eager to learn more about those programs and their eventual aims, although Beijing has largely dismissed calls for greater transparency. Keeping out prying eyes and ears is a key priority.
“For the foreseeable future, China will continue to test the waters to see to what extent they can dissuade the U.S. from taking such a close interest,” said Ron Huisken of the Australian National University’s Strategic and Defense Studies Center.
I decided to dig into the UN Convention on the Law of Seas a little.
According to the Convention, an Exclusive Economic Zone (defined in the section on Exclusive Economic Zone) is “an area beyond and adjacent to the territorial sea, subject to the specific legal regime established in this Part, under which the rights and jurisdiction of the coastal State and the rights and freedoms of other States are governed by the relevant provisions of this Convention.”
The concept of “innocent passage” is not defined in the Section on Exclusive Economic Zone, but in Part II of the Convention on “Territorial Sea and Continguous Zone.”
Part II states “Subject to this Convention, ships of all States, whether coastal or land-locked, enjoy the right of innocent passage through the territorial sea.”
The “Meaning of innocent passage” is defined as:
1. Passage is innocent so long as it is not prejudicial to the peace, good order or security of the coastal State. Such passage shall take place in conformity with this Convention and with other rules of international law.
2. Passage of a foreign ship shall be considered to be prejudicial to the peace, good order or security of the coastal State if in the territorial sea it engages in any of the following activities:
(a) any threat or use of force against the sovereignty, territorial integrity or political independence of the coastal State, or in any other manner in violation of the principles of international law embodied in the Charter of the United Nations;
(b) any exercise or practice with weapons of any kind;
(c) any act aimed at collecting information to the prejudice of the defence or security of the coastal State;
(d) any act of propaganda aimed at affecting the defence or security of the coastal State;
(j) the carrying out of research or survey activities;
Some will argue that the problem here is that the above definition is taken from the section on territorial waters, not exclusive economic zone, and hence does not apply to the use of exclusive economic zones.
While the Section on Exclusive Economic Zone does not explicitly define the notion of “innocent passage,” it does provide a basis for the resolution of conflicts.
Article 59 of that section states that:
In cases where this Convention does not attribute rights or jurisdiction to the coastal State or to other States within the exclusive economic zone, and a conflict arises between the interests of the coastal State and any other State or States, the conflict should be resolved on the basis of equity and in the light of all the relevant circumstances, taking into account the respective importance of the interests involved to the parties as well as to the international community as a whole.
So “on the basis of equity and in the light of all the relevant circumstances,” what do people think the resolution here should be?
I personally think China does legitimately have an interest in not having oceans so close to its land territory – and major naval installation – be the target of routine U.S. surveillance.
The Law of the Sea already prohibits surveillance of any kind in another’s territorial waters.
Looking beyond this case in general, do people think military surveillance should be the kind of activity that should be allowed in another country’s Exclusive Economic Zone?
[Editor's Note: Charles Liu in #50 provided this interesting and informative reference that discusses further some of the legal / political controversies involving the use of Exclusive Economic Zones]
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