In response to U.S. freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea, the Chinese government has repeatedly stated that it is fully committed to respecting freedom of navigation in the region. Most have interpreted this to mean that China will respect all commercial non-military transits, and that China’s only objection is to U.S. military vessels and aircraft traversing their claimed territorial waters.
But there is new evidence that the Chinese Navy is also impeding and harassing civilian navigation through the region. The commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, Admiral Scott H. Swift, said in a speech Monday that:
Even now, ships and aircraft operating nearby these features, in accordance with international law, are subject to superfluous warnings that threaten routine commercial and military operations. Merchant vessels that have navigated shipping lanes freely on behalf of lawful international commerce are diverted after entering so-called military zones. Intimidated by the manner in which some navies, coast guards and maritime militia enforce claims in contested waters, fishermen who trawled the seas freely for generations are facing threats to their livelihoods imposed by nations with unresolved, and often unrecognized claims.
Although unnamed, it seems clear from the context that Admiral Swift is talking about China. Indeed, right on cue, the BBC released this fascinating report yesterday from Rupert Wingfield-Hayes detailing his flight in a civilian Filipino aircraft near and around newly-created Chinese artificial islands. Despite identifying itself as a civilian plane, the single engine Cessna received repeated messages from the Chinese Navy demanding its withdrawal.
Foreign military aircraft in north-west of Meiji Reef, this is the Chinese Navy, you are threatening the security of our station!
Unlike a similar CNN report aboard a U.S. Navy plane, the BBC trip was made independently. This makes the report all the more credible. The Chinese Navy is either purposely warning all ships and aircraft away, or it is not bothering to try very hard to distinguish between civilian and military ships and aircraft.
If it is true that China is now impeding civilian freedom of navigation, the U.S. case for conducting more freedom of navigation operations in the region is even stronger. Once established, military dominance is easily abused. U.S. and other nations’ freedom of navigation operations can keep countries like China honest and ensure the free flow of the billions of dollars of trade that flows through the region every day.
Sure, the U.S. freedom of navigation operations will not resolve the South China Sea disputes. But one only has to watch the BBC report, or listen to Admiral Swift's speech, to realize how much worse off we would be without them.