International news media published coverage over the weekend of the British Navy warship HMS Albion conducting “freedom of navigation” operations (FONOPS) in the South China Sea. Albion sailed near the Paracel Islands, land claimed by China but not recognized by the international community as Chinese sovereignty. The Paracel Islands, along with nearby Spratly Islands, are claimed by numerous nations surrounding the South China Sea. The Paracel Islands are claimed by China, Vietnam, and Taiwan.
British navy's HMS Albion warned over South China Sea 'provocation' https://t.co/48waOb6qH3
— BBC News (UK) (@BBCNews) September 6, 2018
International Maritime Law
The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, the governing document signed in 1982, provides legal guidance on what should and should not be recognized as sovereign maritime space.
According to the law, “the sovereignty of a coastal State extends, beyond its land territory and internal waters and, in the case of an archipelagic State, its archipelagic waters, to an adjacent belt of sea, described as the territorial sea.”
So what exactly is the territorial sea and who can claim it? This is the issue at the heart of the drama unfolding in the South China Sea.
Territorial sea is defined as “up to a limit not exceeding 12 nautical miles, measured from baselines determined in accordance with this Convention.” This means that a nation can claim up to 12 miles from its coast as territorial waters. Foreign navies are allowed to navigate through territorial waters but must adhere to strict guidelines, defined as “innocent passage.”
Ships exercising their right of innocent passage must be “traversing that sea without entering internal waters or calling at a roadstead of port facility outside internal waters; or proceeding to or from internal waters or a call at such roadstead or port facility.” The passage must be “continuous and expeditious.”
Albion was en route to the Vietnamese port at Ho Chi Minh City, where she docked on September 3. China maintains that the passage through what they call territorial waters did not meet the requirements for innocent passage. “The relevant actions by the British ship violated Chinese law and relevant international law, and infringed on China’s sovereignty,” said the Chinese Foreign Ministry in a statement sent to Reuters. “China strongly opposes this and has lodged stern representations with the British side to express strong dissatisfaction.”
The British Navy spokesman was quoted by Reuters as saying “HMS Albion exercised her rights for freedom of navigation in full compliance with international law and norms.” Britain does not recognize the Paracel Islands as Chinese territory. This negates their claims of territorial waters, and the subsequent need to justify innocent passage. In the absence of territorial waters, the Albion was allowed to navigate freely near the Paracel Islands.
Other nations, including the United States, have conducted similar freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea and were met with a similar response from China. One of the big issues is China’s action to build up islands in the region and using them to claim sovereignty. Under the United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea, territorial waters claims cannot be made over rocks or other uninhabitable geographic formations. China has been creating manmade islands, then claiming sovereignty of them and the 12 surrounding nautical miles, to exert control over the potential resources in the region.
Beijing reportedly dispatches frigate & 2 helicopters to escort Royal Navy’s HMS Albion through South China Sea https://t.co/VrbogfCUUE
— RT (@RT_com) September 6, 2018
In 2013, the Philippines brought a case against China to the Permanent Court of Arbitration, The Hague, in which the international court ruled that “China’s claims to historic rights, or other sovereign rights or jurisdiction, with respect to the maritime areas of the South China Sea encompassed by the relevant part of the ‘nine-dash line’ are contrary to the Convention and without lawful effect to the extent that they exceed the geographic and substantive limits of China’s maritime entitlements under the Convention.”
China neither recognized the proceedings nor the ruling and has maintained its sovereignty claims.
Isn’t This an Issue Between the UK and China?
This particular operation involved the British and Chinese navies but FONOPS in the region has long been the focus of the United States. This action by the British Navy comes after President Trump called on US allies to participate more in FONOPS in the South China Sea.
London-based publisher The Telegraph called Albion’s passage “a sign of Britain increasingly flexing its military muscle.” It can also be interpreted as a show of support for the United States’ very public position on China’s claims to islands in the South China Sea. To date, the United States has been the most active nation in disputing these claims through freedom of navigation operations.
Ian Storey of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore told Reuters that “The UK’s actions will please Washington as the Trump administration has grumbled that U.S. allies have been remiss in upholding freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.” He continued to add that “it might also nudge other U.S. allies to make similar moves.”
The United States and other nations have kept an eye to the claims made by China in the South China Sea for trade, resources, and military reasons.
The Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies estimated that over $3 trillion in trade passed through the South China Sea in 2016. Other estimates go as high as $5.3 trillion annually. Much of that trade passes through the Strait of Malacca, which connects the Pacific Ocean to the Indian Ocean. Claims by any nation on these areas could mean increased shipping costs and an impact on the international economy.
The region is also identified in World Factbooks as robust with “productive fishing and potential oil and gas reserves.” Each nation seeking to establish sovereignty hopes to gain access to the resource-rich waters in the South China Sea.
This move by the Brits clearly shows their position as a U.S. ally on sovereignty in the South China Sea. China is one of President Trump’s most pressing foreign policy issues. President Trump has made strong statements about trade with China and has imposed tariffs. As recently as this weekend, he threatened additional tariffs if China did not change its trade practices to be more friendly to American companies.
“We’re looking at $200 billion more, if you know that,” he told press aboard Air Force One of the tariffs imposed on China. “It’s in the hopper. We’ll see what happens.”
Neither the Office of the Prime Minister of Britain nor the Royal Navy have issued statements.