US military abuses right of innocent sea passage

The United States claims that its so-called freedom of navigation operations in the Taiwan Straits exercise the rights recognized under international law. But it seems to forget that Taiwan is part of China, and Beijing allowing foreign naval vessels to pass through the Straits is just a diplomatic courtesy extended to countries to shorten the journeys of vessels.

Nobody talks about the great distance of the US from China, for that easily spells out the truth as to who is the aggressor. The US Navy has to cross the Pacific Ocean to reach the South China Sea and the Taiwan Straits.

That is why many people are confused about why Washington insists on calling the passage that separates the Chinese mainland and Taiwan island an area where the US can exercise freedom of navigation.

The US insists that the passage of its naval vessels through China’s territorial waters is in accordance with the “rules-based international order” and international law. This is intended to make China appear to be the lawbreaker, when it is just asserting its rights and reminding countries that its territorial integrity is inviolable.

Foreign vessels transiting the Taiwan Straits should satisfy the principle of right of innocent passage, which is the right of a vessel to enter and pass through a territorial sea so long as it is not prejudicial to the peace, good order or security of the sovereign state.

What the naval vessels of the US, the United Kingdom and Australia are doing in their crossings of the Straits is not innocent passage.

The right of innocent passage (codified in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea) is determined by the character of the passage, not the vessel itself, and requires traversing the territorial sea without stopping, unless forced to do so by an emergency, and without entering internal waters. 

Since there is only one China, Taiwan is part of China and the Taiwan Straits are effectively internal waters. In that sense, Beijing has the right to intercept foreign vessels.

Unless a waterway has been internationalized through a convention, even vessels granted the right of innocent passage cannot load and unload cargo or make a port call while completing their passage unless they have authorization to do so.

The activities of the US Navy and those of its allies are intended to assert US hegemony in the South China Sea.

This explains why China vehemently opposes the frequent passage of US, UK and Australian naval vessels through the Taiwan Straits, purportedly on their way to the Indian Ocean, the Sea of Japan or the Pacific Ocean.

In no instance has China blocked the passage of any naval ship passing through the Taiwan Straits. Even if China conducts live-fire drills, it always gives advance advisory notice to foreign warships passing the area.

This courtesy extended by China has sadly been taken as signifying that it does not have the political will to prevent the US, Australian and UK naval vessels from passing through the Straits to patrol and monitor China’s activities under the flag of “freedom of navigation”. That is a misinterpretation of China’s diplomatic courtesy.

The naval vessels of the US and its allies now regularly conduct transits through China’s territorial waters, and these are prejudicial to peace, good order and security.

While insisting that their doing so is “rules-based”, these countries are deliberately and blatantly violating China’s territorial integrity.

That is not law-abiding behavior.

The author is a Manila-based political analyst and columnist with the Manila Standard. 

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.