The creation of reclaimed and man‐made islands and reefs also creates a murky issue under international law. Although Beijing has never issued a formal declaration, the implicit Chinese position is that the waters surrounding such entities are the same as territorial waters around other islands, and that includes both a 12‐mile limit with full sovereignty and a larger exclusive economic zone. Since such sizable constructs have never existed before, international law on the subject is unclear. Wholly artificial structures do not lead to existence of a sovereignty zone, but reclaimed land from the sea may be another matter. Yet Washington has chosen to summarily reject China’s position.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter states that, “the United States will fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows, as we do around the world, and the South China Sea is not and will not be an exception.” It is hardly surprising that the United States would insist on a firm defense of international navigation rights. But there are less confrontational ways to pursue that objective without the kind of “in your face” challenge symbolized by the Lassen voyage and future planned patrols. A diplomatic statement asserting that Washington does not necessarily accept claims to a 12‐mile sovereignty belt around artificial or reclaimed islands, accompanied by highly visible U.S. naval patrols in the South China Sea that nevertheless remain outside the claimed 12‐mile limits, would have been an appropriate compromise. It is unfortunate that U.S. officials instead chose to adopt a much more provocative stance.
Chinese leaders also are watching to see what the United States does about the artificial reefs that both Vietnam and the Philippines have built. Those projects are less numerous and smaller than China’s versions, but they raise the same questions under international law. That creates a dilemma for U.S. officials. If they send naval vessels into waters close to such islands, the action is likely to annoy Hanoi and Manila and undercut their territorial claims. However, if the U.S. Navy conveniently fails to assert navigation rights against those claims, Chinese officials will consider that clear evidence that Washington is applying a double standard. That suspicion is already prominent with regard to U.S. actions regarding the overall, multi‐sided territorial controversies involving the South China Sea. Despite assurances from both the Bush and Obama administrations that the United States remains neutral with respect to the disputes, Washington’s unsubtle policy tilts toward Vietnam and the Philippines suggest an “anybody but China” attitude.
Beijing’s suspicions about U.S. motives in the South China Sea are already at a high level. The Lassen incident and the planned additional naval patrols are certain to intensify those suspicions. The South China Sea dispute has now emerged as the most prominent issue that could irrevocably damage relations between the United States and China. Naval patrols brazenly challenging China’s position regarding the man‐made islands are unnecessarily provocative. Washington needs to take a step back before it ignites a major crisis.