Some 90 days after the last attempt at conducting a freedom of navigation operation in the South China Sea, the American destroyer USS Curtis Wilbur sailed within 12 nautical miles of Triton Island in the Paracels. The central point of this mission was to sail near the islands without prior notification.
Unlike the October case, where the USS Lassen approached the artificial island the Chinese are building on Subi Reef (which does not enjoy a 12 nautical mile territorial water zone, because it is an artificial island built atop a reef), Triton island is an actual island, and therefore entitled to a 12 nautical mile territorial water zone. Therefore, while nations have a right of “innocent passage” within 12 nautical miles of the island, they are enjoined from operating military equipment (e.g., radars or helicopters), and are expected to transit any such waters as rapidly as possible.
The American transit, in this case, appears intended to underscore that no prior notification is necessary for such “innocent passage,” so long as it is undertaken expeditiously in a straight line. Reminding various states, including the People’s Republic of China, of this fact is useful, but does not address the larger point that China seeks to establish new precedents, by building entire islands atop reefs and then claiming territorial sea and exclusive economic zones around them.
To its credit, however, the decision to hold this freedom of navigation operation in the Paracels does constitute an important signal, one which has been little remarked upon in the public discussions.
The Paracels are often seen as Chinese territory, despite the disputed status between Hanoi and Beijing. The Chinese took these islands from the South Vietnamese in 1974 (earning Saigon a scathing condemnation from Hanoi at the time). While the Vietnamese constantly invoke the Paracels as an example of Chinese territorial aggrandizement, it is unclear how many of Vietnam’s neighbors, if any, are likely to support Hanoi, given China’s control of the island array for some 40 years.
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