Researcher: Claim used to accuse and suppress China's maritime activities
The United States' claim of "freedom of navigation" is merely a disguise for its intention to maintain maritime hegemony and is in plain disrespect of the lawful rights and interests of other countries, according to a recent paper from a Chinese researcher.
Lei Xiaolu, an associate professor at the China Institute of Boundary and Ocean Studies under Wuhan University, wrote in her paper titled "The 'Freedom of Navigation' Claimed by the United States is Not 'Freedom of Navigation' under International Law" that "freedom of navigation" is a core claim of the U.S. maritime order and has been used to accuse and suppress China's maritime activities.
"The 'freedom of navigation' pursued by the U.S. and the freedom of navigation recognized by international law are not the same thing at all," wrote Lei, who is also deputy director of the South China Sea Strategic Situation Probing Initiative, a non-profit research program.
According to her, there is a fundamental difference between the "freedom of navigation" claimed by the U.S. and the real freedom of navigation under international law as the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea ultimately aims to maintain a balance between the interests of maritime powers and coastal states.
"There has never been an unrestricted right of navigation in the convention or in general international law. What the U.S. insists upon and pursues is a right of unimpeded transit passage without the consent, or any reaction from the coastal states. This position is clearly not fully supported by the convention. Although foreign ships enjoy the right of innocent passage in the territorial sea, Article 25 of the convention provides that the coastal state may take the necessary steps to prevent passage which is not innocent," Lei wrote.
The researcher pointed out that the disagreement between the U.S. and China is not about whether other states have navigational rights in the various maritime areas, but rather about the extent to which navigational and other rights can be enjoyed and exercised, specifically, what constitutes an "unlawful restriction" on the navigational rights of coastal states.
"U.S. warships may exercise the right of innocent passage, but at the same time must respect the coastal state's determination of whether the passage is innocent and comply with the laws and regulations of the coastal state," she wrote, noting that as a non-party to the convention, the practice of the U.S. means nothing for the interpretation of the convention.
Therefore, if the U.S. wants to preserve its navigational interests, forcing its position through unilateral acts is not the best option, Lei claimed.
"It must face up to and respect the space reserved by the convention for coastal states to maintain their national security and resolve the relevant issues with the states concerned through bilateral or multilateral legal arrangements," she wrote.
Since 2007, China has been a target country for U.S. "freedom of navigation" operations.
"More importantly, unlike other 'freedom of navigation' operations, those near islands and reefs in the South China Sea are more politically and strategically provocative," Lei wrote.
Wang Wenbin, a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, said at a news conference in Beijing on Tuesday that the U.S. sends its military aircraft and ships to travel long distances to make provocations on China's doorstep and carry out close-in reconnaissance and display of force.
"This is not about 'protecting freedom of navigation' but is actually about advancing its 'navigation hegemony'. Such acts clearly are military provocations and are the real root of safety risks in the air and sea," Wang said.