Three times in 2019 the United States has sent warships within 12 nautical miles of contested islands in the South China Sea. Critics of this policy usually attack American forces for “picking a fight” with China and for continuing adventurism. But this policy actually has the best chance of supporting peace! For years China has illegally developed islands and placed advanced radar systems, anti-air batteries, shipping docks that can handle blue-water (battle) ships, submarine bases, and large runways that can support their advanced fighters (which are being built using stolen technology from the F-22 and F-35). Keep in mind they are doing this in the Spratly and other islands in the South China Sea that are vigorously disputed. (Its true that other nations have done so as well, but not to the extent that China has and definitely not with the same degree of militarization.)
When the U.S. performs a Freedom of Seas operation, they send an important signal of strength and peace. Because the islands are disputed, the U.S. performs these operations to reaffirm the importance of international law. These are incredibly crucial because they prevent the de facto recognition of this territory as China’s. If international law is disregarded, it will be a free-for-all in this region where disputes are settled by force. As the biggest military power in the region, this would naturally encourage more assertive action by China. If China aggressively controls this territory they could easily cut off shipping in the region, through which almost half of the world’s merchant fleet passes.
That’s why military officials are not foolishly picking a fight with China, as some people have alleged —though these Freedom of the Seas operations do have some danger— but wisely reasserting basic rights of international law that China is actively threatening. China has threatened every one of its neighbors, aggressively maneuvers near them, and actively builds bases in disputed territory that can project force. And they could pose a threat to basic freedoms of the sea, such as trade. Supporting international law is something most Republicans are accused of ignoring in favor of their cowboy diplomacy. But this policy actually supports international law as an important mechanism in leading to peace.
The most foolish part of this exercise isn’t that they are challenging China’s unilateral attempts to seize disputed islands. It’s the concept of “innocent passage.” This is a feature of international law that allows warships of different countries to move within the territorial waters (12 nautical miles) of other countries if their warships meet certain conditions. Unlike Freedom of the Seas which involves freedom to move through international waters, innocent passage recognizes territorial claims which would undermine the purpose of these operations. Given China’s vociferous objections to U.S. movement, it seems the correct message was sent. But the U.S. should be careful of the terminology they use and how they move through the territory so they don’t accidentally undermine their attempts.
The movement of United States warships around the world is important to consider for the role it takes in advancing U.S. interests, avoiding war, and promoting world peace. In this case, the movement of U.S. warships is entirely correct to prevent territories being seized by force.