A spokesman for the National Security Council deferred questions regarding the Navy's plans to the Office of the Secretary of Defense, but drew attention to President Obama's remarks before the U.N. General Assembly Sept. 28, where he said the U.S. has "an interest in upholding the basic principles of freedom of navigation and the free flow of commerce, and in resolving disputes through international law, not the law of force."
The news of the pending maneuver comes just a day after Pacific Fleet boss Adm. Scott Swift told a maritime conference in Australia that "some nations" were behaving in a manner inconsistent with international law, a clear reference to the ongoing dispute with China.
"It's my sense that some nations view freedom of the seas as up for grabs, as something that can be taken down and redefined by domestic law or by reinterpreting international law," Swift said, according to a report by Reuters. "Some nations continue to impose superfluous warnings and restrictions on freedom of the seas in their exclusive economic zones and claim territorial water rights that are inconsistent with (the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea). This trend is particularly egregious in contested waters."
Map of the South China Sea region.
Photo Credit: John Bretschneider
"In order to deter these actions and prevent further erosion of stability in the region, the United States must make clear that it is fully committed to maintaining freedom of navigation in the South China Sea," the letter read, calling for a "highly symbolic" passage of Navy ships and aircraft past the islands to send a message to China.
When reports that the U.S. was planning to challenge China's island claims surfaced in May, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson urged "relevant countries to refrain from taking risky and provocative action," according to a report in the Wall Street Journal. Foreign Policy reported Oct. 2 that U.S. officials were planning a tougher stance in the South China Sea, including stepped up freedom of navigation patrols with ships and aircraft in the vicinity of the islands.
Bryan Clark, a retired submarine officer and analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, said that passage through territorial waters is a routine Navy operation typically used to build a legal case under international law for freedom of navigation in international waters, and right of innocent passage within territorial waters.
"If you act like they have a legal 12-mile limit, even though the U.S. has said it doesn't recognize it, you are tacitly acknowledging those claims as legitimate," Clark said, adding that even if the claims were legitimate, the U.S. would have the right to pass through under the right of innocent passage.
The U.S. and China's neighbors in the region are concerned that China is creating military installations on the islands. In June, images surfaced of a nearly complete 10,000-foot-long airstrip on one of the islands, big enough to accommodate military aircraft.
China claims nearly all of the South China Sea, a position that has put it at loggerheads with its neighbors and prompted countries in the region, including erstwhile enemies such as Vietnam, to turn to the U.S. to offset the newly aggressive China.
China's actions have also prompted renewed military-to-military relations with the Philippines, more than two decades after the U.S. was kicked out of the country following a wave of anti-American sentiment inside the former U.S. colony.
David B. Larter was the naval warfare reporter for Defense News.