“USS William P. Lawrence exercised the right of innocent passage while transiting inside 12 nautical miles of Fiery Cross Reef, a high-tide feature that is occupied by China, but also claimed by the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam,” the DOD said in a statement.
Washington (Talk Media News) – The U.S. sailed a naval destroyer within 12 nautical miles of a disputed island in the South China Sea Tuesday, prompting China to call the move provocative.
“USS William P. Lawrence exercised the right of innocent passage while transiting inside 12 nautical miles of Fiery Cross Reef, a high-tide feature that is occupied by China, but also claimed by the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam,” Cmdr. Bill Urban, a U.S. Defense Department spokesman, said in a written statement.
“This operation challenged attempts by China, Taiwan, and Vietnam to restrict navigation rights around the features they claim, specifically that these three claimants purport to require prior permission or notification of transits through the territorial sea, contrary to international law.”
Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), to which China and Vietnam are party and the U.S. is not, a nation can extend its territorial seas to 12 nautical miles off its shores.
Within this space, foreign vessels are allowed the right of innocent passage. When straits fall within this 12 nautical mile zone, vessels are permitted transit passage or allowed to keep postures that would be illegal in territorial waters.
In this case, the U.S. challenged the three countries, but not the Philippines who also lay claim to the islands, because they attempted to restrict the movement of foreign ships pending notification and consent of the claimant country.
“No claimants were notified prior to the transit, which is consistent with our normal process and international law,” Urban said.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lu Kang said that the Chinese military attempted to radio the ship without response.
“Relevant department on the Chinese side monitored, followed and issued warnings to the U.S. vessel in accordance with law. I must say that what the US warship has done threatened China’s sovereignty and security interests, endangered safety of personnel and facilities on the reef, and jeopardized regional peace and stability,” Lu said.
Lu also pointed out that the U.S. is not a signatory to UNCLOS. He accused the U.S. of “[dragging] its feet in joining UNCLOS … because the U.S. places its own interests above international law.”
While the U.S. is not party to the agreement, it abides by its guidelines. Ratifying the treaty would require approval from the Senate.
Responding to the allegation from China, the U.S. State Department said Tuesday that it “is a common understanding among these claimants” what constitutes “excessive” territorial claims and would thus warrant a freedom of navigation exercise.
Fiery Cross Reef is part of the disputed Spratly Islands.
Tuesday’s passage is the third carried out by the U.S. Navy in the South China Sea.
Last October, the guided missile destroyer USS Lassen passed within 12 nautical miles of Subi Reef in the Spratly Islands.
In January, the guided missile destroyer USS Curtis Wilbur sailed within 12 nautical miles of Triton Island in the disputed Paracel Islands archipelago.
The U.S. refuses to back a claimant to the territory, but maintains an economic interest in the region, with more than $5 trillion in global trade passing through the South China Sea each year.
The region is also thought to be home to huge, untapped natural gas reserves.
“This operation demonstrates, as President Obama has stated, that the United States will fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows. That is true in the South China Sea as in other places around the globe,” Urban said.