Chinese Warships Sail into American Waters

Last Thursday, the Pentagon confirmed five Chinese warships had sailed within 12 nautical miles of the Alaskan coast. The US, in accordance with international law, claims as territorial water a band of sea extending 12 miles from its shores. The Chinese vessels, therefore, entered American waters.

US authorities did not grant permission for the Chinese transit, and the waters in question are not an internationally recognized strait. The Pentagon did not complain, however, maintaining the warships “transited expeditiously and continuously through the Aleutian Island chain in a manner consistent with international law.” As a US official explained to CNN, the intrusion constituted “innocent passage.”

“Innocent passage” is a vague international law concept. In general, warships can transit through the territorial waters of a coastal state if they have no hostile intent and do not engage in certain activities.

The US, for instance, often does not protest Russian ships passing within 12 miles of Alaskan coasts. As a Pentagon official told CNN, the US does not prevent vessels making quick transits through US territorial waters to be consistent with Washington’s position that other nations cannot close off international seas.

So was the Chinese transit, which probably took place last Wednesday night or Thursday morning, truly “innocent”?

The Chinese ships, before their controversial transit, were exercising with Russian vessels off the coast of Vladivostok. Military analysts wondered why China contributed an oiler to a drill so close to China, but then that became clear.

After the conclusion of the drill, the Chinese ships—three surface combatants, an amphibious landing ship, and the oiler—sailed not south back to China but about 3,000 kilometers northeast—from the waters off Vladivostok into the Bering Sea, traveling between Russia’s Kamchatka peninsula and the Alaskan island of Attu. On the trip north, the flotilla stayed in international water the whole way.

On the return, however, China’s ships left the Bering Sea by passing east of Attu to enter the Pacific Ocean, coming within 12 nautical miles of the American coast. The operation in the Bering Sea was a first for the navy of the People’s Republic.

In short, Chinese vessels traveled 6,000 kilometers just so they could brush American shores. Moreover, the flotilla intruded onto American waters at about the same time President Obama was in Alaska.

As just about every military analyst in Asia noted, the Chinese meant the passage to be provocative, “designed to send a message” as the South China Morning Post put it. Given the ambiguities of “innocent passage” and the apparently hostile nature of the exercise, therefore, Washington could have denied the Chinese ships free passage or lodged a protest afterwards. 

We have to remember Beijing often does not recognize innocent passage in waters off its own coast and continually denies the US Navy has a right to be in the international waters of the South China Sea. An arrogant Beijing now believes it can do what it wants and perhaps takes American restraint as a sign of weakness, especially in light of the Obama administration’s reluctance to allow the US Navy to conduct “freedom of navigation” exercises in the South China Sea.

Complacent American policymakers—many of them in naval uniforms—assume the Chinese understand the dominance of the US Navy and are deterred. Yes, China’s military planners can count ships and planes just as well as American admirals can, but the Chinese don’t necessarily think in ship-versus-ship terms.  They apparently think—maybe correctly—Washington has little or no will to confront them. So in East Asia, likely the most dangerous spot on earth, deterrence is eroding. 

Therefore, this would be the perfect time for the US Navy to make a transit inside China’s 12-mile band, perhaps in the strait separating the Chinese mainland from Hainan Island. Failing to respond now would allow the concept of freedom of navigation—and with it the notion of a broad global commons—to deteriorate even further.

The best way to preserve every nation’s right to the seas is to sail through them, and the Chinese just made the need to do so even more urgent.

OG Image: