|THE US NAVY’S missile destroyer USS Lassen
WASHINGTON/MOSCOW — As United States President Barack Obama heads to the Philippines and Malaysia on Nov. 18-22, the US Navy’s Pacific Command chief announced that Washington will continue its military patrols in the disputed waters of the South China Sea.
Last week, China strongly criticized the United States after the naval destroyer USS Lassen sailed within 12 nautical miles of the Spratly archipelago in waters claimed by several regional powers, including the Philippines and China. Washington responded that the maneuver was not in violation of international law.
“By matching our words and our diplomacy with routine freedom of navigation operations, we’re making it clear that the United States continues to favor peaceful resolutions to ongoing disputes and that our military will continue to fly, sail and operate whenever and wherever international law allows,” Adm. Harry B. Harris said at Peking University in Beijing, as quoted by The Wall Street Journal.
He stressed that the South China Sea “is not, and will not, be an exception.”
According to media reports, the US Navy intends to patrol the area twice per year quarter.
Over the past few months, Beijing has been constructing artificial islands, some with defense facilities, on the coral reefs of the Spratly Islands — a group of more than 750 islands and reefs. China claims sovereignty over the land and the 12 nautical mile zone surrounding the islands.
The United States does not recognize the Chinese claims of sovereignty over the man-made islands, and has repeatedly raised concerns over Beijing’s activities in the region.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said after the incident that China considered the passing of a US warship within 12 nautical miles of the artificially created islands to be illegal and a violation of China’s sovereignty.
An international tribunal in the Netherlands has determined it has jurisdiction over an arbitration case filed by the Philippines against China over the two countries’ territorial dispute in the South China Sea.
In its 151-page decision, the five-member court, constituted under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, ruled it has jurisdiction over seven of the 15 issues that the Philippines submitted for arbitration, while that for eight others will be decided later.
“The tribunal will convene a further hearing on the merits of the Philippines’ claims,” the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague said in a press statement. “The Tribunal expects that it will render its award on the merits and remaining jurisdictional issues in 2016.”
The court is composed of judges from Ghana, France, Poland, the Netherlands and Germany.
Welcoming the decision, Philippine foreign affairs spokesman Charles Jose said, “We look forward to the tribunal’s further hearing on the merits of the case.”
The development comes as tension in the South China Sea has risen after a U.S. Navy destroyer sailed within what China claims as its territorial waters there earlier this week.
China has been conducting massive reclamation projects in the waters, where it claims sovereignty over most of the South China Sea, amid opposition from other claimants including the Philippines.
The Philippines filed the arbitration case in January 2013 to seek a ruling on maritime entitlements in the South China Sea amid China’s claims to “historic rights” with its “nine-dash line” over the resources-rich body of water.
Among the disputed features mentioned by the Philippines in its submissions to the court are the Scarborough Shoal, Mischief Reef, Second Thomas Shoal, Subi Reef, Gaven Reef, McKennan Reef (including Hughes Reef), Johnson Reef, Cuarteron Reef and Fiery Cross Reef.
The Philippines is also seeking rulings on whether some Chinese activities in the South China Sea are in violation of the U.N. convention, particularly China’s alleged interfering with the Philippines’ sovereign rights and freedoms, and construction and fishing activities that have damaged the environment.
The two countries are among the 166 parties to the 1982 convention.
While China has refused to participate in the court proceedings as it insists on resolving the matter bilaterally, the court said that does not deprive it of jurisdiction over the case.
Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario has said the final outcome of the arbitration “will contribute to the peaceful and long-term resolution of overlapping maritime jurisdictions in the South China Sea.”
China started to assert its claims aggressively over almost the entire 3.5 million square kilometer body of water in 2011 when it barred a Philippine energy exploration team at the Reed Bank in the Spratly Islands.
A year later, China also effectively took control of the Scarborough Shoal, which the Philippines says is within its 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone.
Aside from actual confrontations with Philippine authorities and fishermen in the disputed waters, China also went on to reclaim and fortify some of the contested features in the South China Sea, drawing criticisms from the international community including the United States and Japan.
In Tokyo, Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida said Japan will “keep a close eye” on the arbitration court’s moves as respecting freedom of navigation and rule of law at sea are of “great interest to the international community.”
The South China Sea is a crucial shipping lane, abundant in marine resources, and is believed to hold substantial oil and gas resources.
Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei and Taiwan also have overlapping claims with the Philippines and China in the area.