Skip to main content

by Kris Osborn

Asking that the U.S. sail ships within 12-miles of artificial islands in the South China Sea claimed as legitimate territory by China.

According to a United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, an international treaty supported by but not yet formally joined by the U.S., 12-miles off the coast of a given territory is considered to be sovereign waters owned by the respective country.

The area is question is a group of highly disputed islands south of China in the South China Sea called the Spratly Islands.  The small islands in the area, some of which are claimed by China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Taiwan, are rich in resources and of strategic geographical importance in the Pacific region.

Pentagon officials have widely criticized an ongoing Chinese effort to erect artificial structures nearby or on top of its claimed island territories in the Spratly Islands. Called “land reclamation” by the Pentagon, the activity has added more than 2,000 acres to island territories claimed by China.

The ongoing “land reclamation” by China in the area appears to be a rather transparent attempt by China to reinforce and bolster extended territorial claims in the South China Sea.

However, the Law of the Sea Convention does not recognize artificial or man-made structures and legitimate island territories to be claimed. Therefore, the U.S and its Pacific allies do not support or agree with China’s aggressive territorial claims.  In fact, citing the definition of islands articulated in the Law of the Sea Convention, Pentagon officials do not recognize the artificial structures as islands – but instead refer to the effort as “land reclamation.”

Scroll to Continue

Recommended for You

Under the U.N. Law of the Sea convention, negotiated in the 1980s and updated in the 1990s, an island is defined as a "naturally formed area of land above the water at high tide." Also, article 60 of the U.N. Convention says "artificial islands are not entitled to territorial seas."

As a result, the bi-partisan group of lawmakers are asking that the United States conduct freedom of navigation exercises and sail within 12-miles of the territories illegitimately claimed by China.

“We believe that a firm response from the U.S. government, including the highly symbolic passage of American ships and aircraft through the waters and airspace illegitimately claimed by China, is needed to reinforce and sustain the international community’s opposition to extralegal claims,” the letter writes.

The effort with the letter, led by prominent Congressman Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee, goes on to express concern that China intends to militarize its artificial island structures.

“The 10,000-foot runways under construction on these artificial formations are clearly intended to accommodate military aircraft, and it seems highly possible that China will militarize its artificial features and deploy weapons to enable China to better project power and control these crucial waters,” the letter continues.

Several months ago, Pentagon officials said surveillance planes have already seen weapons placed on the artificial island structures by the Chinese. Nevertheless, Chinese President Xi Jinping recent said China would not militarize the island structures. However, if U.S. ships sail within 12 miles of the area, there is speculation that that could change China’s formal stance on the issue.

In total, the letter has received a total of 29 signatures from letters of Congress. It is conceivable that the letter is at least partially responsible for numerous recent reports that the U.S. is, in fact, now considering sending Navy ships on patrols within 12-miles of these artificial structures.

“The longer the United States goes without challenging China’s unfounded claims to sovereignty over these artificial formations – and to territorial waters and exclusive economic rights in the surrounding water – the greater the consequences will be for regional stability,” the letter claims.