USS Lassen May Have Legitimized China’s Subi Reef Claim

As the world rejoices over US resolve in the South China Sea, some ask: did USS Lassen Legitimize China's Subi Reef Claim?As the world rejoices over US resolve in the South China Sea, some ask: did USS Lassen Legitimize China's Subi Reef Claim?

As the world rejoices over US resolve in the South China Sea, some ask is it really what it’s cracked up to be or is there another side to it? Could it be the other way around?

Did USS Lassen Legitimize China’s Subi Reef Claim?

On October 27, 2015, USS Lassen, a US Arleigh Burke class destroyer, sailed within 12 nautical miles of  territorial water limit Subi Reef, a maritime feature claimed by China. Before China’s reclamation project, Subi reef falls below the water. It is a low-tide elevation.

USS Lassen May Have Legitimized China's Spratlys Claim Chinese Subi Reef facilities in April 2015. Digital Globe Photo via The Diplomat

Chinese Subi Reef facilities in April 2015. Digital Globe Photo via The Diplomat

Innocent Passage

According to Article 19 of the United Nations Convention on the Laws Of the Sea (UNCLOS), “a passage is innocent so long as it is not prejudicial to the peace, good order or security of the coastal State. Such passage shall take place in conformity with this Convention and with other rules of international law.” 

On the same track, the UNCLOS iterates that the following are not considered innocent:

  1. any threat or use of force against the sovereignty, territorial integrity or political independence of the coastal State, or in any other manner in violation of the principles of international law embodied in the Charter of the United Nations;
  2. any exercise or practice with weapons of any kind;
  3. any act aimed at collecting information to the prejudice of the defence or security of the coastal State;
  4. any act of propaganda aimed at affecting the defence or security of the coastal State;
  5. the launching, landing or taking on board of any aircraft;
  6. the launching, landing or taking on board of any military device;
  7. the loading or unloading of any commodity, currency or person contrary to the customs, fiscal, immigration or sanitary laws and regulations of the coastal State;
  8. any act of wilful and serious pollution contrary to this Convention;
  9. any fishing activities;
  10. the carrying out of research or survey activities;
  11. any act aimed at interfering with any systems of communication or any other facilities or installations of the coastal State;
  12. any other activity not having a direct bearing on passage.

That being established, it is unclear whether USS Lassen have conducted any of the identified activities not consistent with the definition of “Innocent Passage.”

The only conclusive evidence, speculative as it is, comes from  a report in stripes.com. According to the article:

“The ship was expected to be joined by at least one Navy surveillance aircraft… U.S. 7th Fleet officials deferred questions about the operation.”

The nature of the USS Lassen sail-by remains ambgiuous. Thus, we can only presume that they in fact sailed under the pretense of “Innocent Passage.”

Implication

According to Article 17 or the UNCLOS,  the “right of innocent passage is granted ships of all states, whether coastal or land-locked.”

“[Ships of all states] enjoy the right of innocent passage through the territorial sea.

Thus, USS Lassen having conducted a sea patrol over Subi Reef, not “prejudicial to the peace, good order or security of the coastal State” in essence have legitimized and acknowledged China’s claim on the artificial island. The US has conducted the exercise with consideration to a 12 nautical mile “territorial” sea. The mere fact it has considered it makes the China’s reality, a norm.

“The US has conducted the exercise with consideration to a 12 nautical mile “territorial” sea. The mere fact it has considered it makes the China’s reality, a norm.”

The US could have easily fired a single gun (exercise or practice with weapons of any kind), flown or landed a drone (the launching, landing or taking on board of any aircraft), conducted a surveillance mission (collecting information), or just fished in while it was within Subi Reef’s 12-nautical mile “territorial” limit.

It would have been more clear and decisive. It would have put the issue down.

***

Which brings me to another point. Yesterday, I wrote an article asking if the PH South China Sea Naval Patrols proposed by Philippine lawmakers are wise.

Related:

Given the ambiguity of the true intentions of our “close” and “trusted” ally the US, and the seemingly duplicitous USS Lassen sail-by, I repeat my recommendation:

“Move not unless you see an advantage; use not your troops unless there is something to be gained; fight not unless the position is critical.” – Sun Tzu

 

Sources:

  1. Why The US Navy’s First South China Sea FONOP Wasn’t A FONOP
  2. How Far Did the United States Go with the Lassen Operation?
  3. Report: USS Lassen sails near disputed reef claimed by China

About the Author

Amang Laya
Amang Laya
Amang Laya is the South China Sea News Today's contributor-at-large. He is a graduate of the University of the Philippines. He spends his days monitoring the latest news and views on the South China Sea Dispute.

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