On 12 May, US media reported that the US military is considering sending military surveillance aircraft and naval vessels to within 12 nautical miles of Chinese-occupied features in the disputed Spratly Islands.
The normal territorial sea limit under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) is 12 nautical miles. The report appeared one day after the USS Fort Worth, a US Navy littoral combat ship, was allegedly shadowed by a Chinese navy frigate while patrolling in the South China Sea near the Spratly Islands, where China has conducted extensive land reclamation projects around a number of islets and reefs that it occupies. On 13 May, the Chinese Foreign Ministry expressed “serious concern” over the report and demanded US clarifications.
China claims most of the islets in the South China Sea, a claim that is actively disputed by the other states in the region, most importantly Vietnam and the Philippines. Although several Spratly claimants have conducted land reclamation, the Chinese efforts are notable for their speed and extent. Under UNCLOS, only natural land features permanently above sea level are entitled to surrounding territorial seas, whereas many of the Chinese-occupied features are submerged at high tide. Although the United States has never accepted Chinese claims of territorial waters around the periodically submerged features, to date US forces have refrained from traversing the 12-nautical-mile limit.
Any US air or naval patrol breaching the 12-nautical-mile limit would be regarded as in deliberate violation of Chinese sovereignty by Beijing, and would probably trigger a diplomatic confrontation between the US and China. Given the range of global security and economic issues which require Chinese co-operation, in particular the increasingly volatile situation in North Korea, the White House is unlikely to directly challenge Chinese territorial claims at this time. Instead, the US will probably respond to recent Chinese assertiveness by strengthening military co-operation with the other South China Sea states, as it did on October 2014, when it lifted its arms embargo against Hanoi, in place since the Gulf of Tonkin Incident in 1964. In the present scenario, US vessels are likely to patrol close to the 12-mile limit without breaching it.
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