On May 20 (local time), Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer USS Curtis Wilbur (DDG 54) asserted navigational rights and freedoms in the vicinity of the Paracel Islands, consistent with international law. This freedom of navigation operation (“FONOP”) upheld the rights, freedoms, and lawful uses of the sea recognized in international law by challenging the unlawful restrictions on innocent passage imposed by China, Taiwan, and Vietnam and also by challenging China’s claim to strait baselines enclosing the Paracel Islands.
Unlawful and sweeping maritime claims in the South China Sea pose a serious threat to the freedom of the seas, including the freedoms of navigation and overflight, free trade and unimpeded commerce, and freedom of economic opportunity for South China Sea littoral nations.
The United States challenges excessive maritime claims around the world regardless of the identity of the claimant. The international law of the sea as reflected in the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention provides for certain rights and freedoms and other lawful uses of the sea to all nations. The international community has an enduring role in preserving the freedom of the seas, which is critical to global security, stability, and prosperity.
The United States upholds freedom of navigation as a principle. As long as some countries continue to assert maritime claims that are inconsistent with international law as reflected in the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention and that purport to restrict unlawfully the rights and freedoms guaranteed to all States, the United States will continue to defend those rights and freedoms. No member of the international community should be intimidated or coerced into giving up their rights and freedoms.
China, Taiwan, and Vietnam each claim sovereignty over the Paracel Islands. All three claimants require either permission or advance notification before a military vessel or warship engages in “innocent passage” through the territorial sea. Under international law as reflected in the Law of the Sea Convention, the ships of all States – including their warships – enjoy the right of innocent passage through the territorial sea. The unilateral imposition of any authorization or advance-notification requirement for innocent passage is not permitted by international law. By engaging in innocent passage without giving prior notification to or asking permission from any of the claimants, the United States challenged these unlawful restrictions imposed by China, Taiwan and Vietnam. The United States demonstrated that innocent passage may not be subject to such restrictions.
The United States also challenged China’s 1996 declaration of straight baselines encompassing the Paracel Islands. Regardless of which claimant has sovereignty over the islands in the Paracel Islands, straight baselines cannot lawfully be drawn around the Paracel Islands in their entirety. International law as reflected in the Law of Sea Convention is both clear and comprehensive regarding the circumstances under which States can depart from “normal” baselines. Straight baselines cannot be lawfully drawn in the Paracels under the international law of the sea as reflected in Article 7 of the Law of Sea Convention. Furthermore, international law does not permit continental States, like China, to establish baselines around entire dispersed island groups. With these baselines, China has attempted to claim more internal waters, territorial sea, exclusive economic zone, and continental shelf than it is entitled to under international law. By conducting this operation, the United States demonstrated that these waters are beyond what China can lawfully claim as its territorial sea, and that China’s claimed straight baselines around the Paracel Islands are inconsistent with international law.
U.S. forces operate in the South China Sea on a daily basis, as they have for more than a century. They routinely operate in close coordination with like-minded allies and partners who share our commitment to uphold a free and open international order that promotes security and prosperity. All of our operations are designed to be conducted in accordance with international law and demonstrate that the United States will fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows – regardless of the location of excessive maritime claims and regardless of current events.
The PLA’s statement about this mission is false. USS Curtis Wilbur was not “expelled” from any nation’s territory. USS Curtis Wilbur conducted this FONOP in accordance with international law and then continued on to conduct normal operations in international waters. The operation reflects our commitment to uphold freedom of navigation and lawful uses of the sea as a principle. The United States will continue to fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows, as USS Curtis Wilbur did here.
The PLA’s statement is the latest in a long string of PRC actions to misrepresent lawful U.S. maritime operations and asserts its excessive and illegitimate maritime claims at the expense in the Southeast Asian neighbors in the South China Sea. The PRC’s behavior stands in contrast to the United States’ adherence to international law and our vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific region. All nations, large and small, should be secure in their sovereignty, free from coercion, and able to pursue economic growth consistent with accepted international rules and norms.
Summaries of U.S. freedom of navigation assertions are released publicly in the annual “DoD Freedom of Navigation Report.” Past reports are available online at https://policy.defense.gov/OUSDP-Offices/FON/.