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A Royal Malaysian Navy vessel fires a missile during a military exercise in the South China Sea on August 12. Malaysia is among the nations that have competing claims with China in the resource-rich waters. Photo: DPA

US says new Chinese rule that vessels register for South China Sea access threatens freedom of navigation

  • Maritime regulations ‘must not infringe upon rights enjoyed by all nations under international law’, says Pentagon spokesman
  • New rule is supposed to apply to the South China Sea, the East China Sea, and the islands and reefs dotted across the water that Beijing claims as its territory

The Pentagon on Wednesday appeared to dismiss Beijing’s new demand that all foreign ships entering the South China Sea must register with Chinese maritime authorities, calling it a “serious threat” to freedom of navigation and trade.

“The United States remains firm that any coastal state law or regulation must not infringe upon navigation and overflight rights enjoyed by all nations under international law,” said John Supple, a Pentagon spokesman, in response to questions about China’s decree this week.

“Unlawful and sweeping maritime claims, including in the South China Sea, pose a serious threat to the freedom of the seas, including the freedoms of navigation and overflight, free trade and unimpeded lawful commerce, and the rights and interests of South China Sea and other littoral nations,” he said.

The comments came two days after China announced that foreign vessels entering Chinese “territorial waters” would have to report their ship and cargo information to the country’s maritime authorities.

The rule is supposed to apply to the South China Sea, the East China Sea, and the various islands and reefs dotted across the water that Beijing claims as its inalienable territory.

China’s vast claims to the resource-rich waterways – among the busiest sea lanes in the world – have been a source of growing tension between Beijing, neighbouring governments and Washington for years.

Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan have competing claims in the South China Sea, and Japan and South Korea have their own disputes with Beijing in the East China Sea.

Five years ago, an international tribunal ruled that Beijing’s sweeping claims of almost the entire South China Sea had no legal basis.

South China Sea: the dispute that could start a military conflict

The US regularly conducts what it calls “freedom of navigation” exercises in the region, meant to assert the waterways’ status as international sea routes.

In July, China’s military claimed it “drove away” an American warship that had passed near the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea – known in China as the Xisha Islands and in Vietnam as the Hoang Sa Islands. The US Navy later said that China’s statement about driving away the US ship was false.

“The United States remains committed to upholding the rules-based international order and a free and open Indo-Pacific region,” said Supple, the Pentagon spokesman.

On a visit to Vietnam last week, US Vice-President Kamala Harris said the region needed to do more to stand up to China’s vast territorial claims and aggressive behaviour in the region.

US Vice-President Kamala Harris speaking during her visit to Vietnam on August 26. Photo: AP

“We need to find ways to pressure and raise the pressure, frankly, on Beijing to abide by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, and to challenge its bullying and excessive maritime claims,” Harris said.

The United States is not a party to that UN treaty.

China’s new rule was supposed to take effect on Wednesday, according to the country’s Maritime Safety Administration. The Chinese government has not clarified how it will be enforced.

State Department spokesman Ned Price declined to say whether the Chinese government had communicated directly with the US about the edict. But he said the US had already made its position clear to Beijing that it viewed the expansive territorial claims as illegal.

“We have not been shy about lodging our protests and, together in many cases with our partners and allies, standing up to unlawful, excessive maritime claims” of China, said Price. “We will continue to do that.”

Rocks, reefs and the ruling: the Hague tribunal’s key findings in the South China Sea case

Observers have questioned whether Beijing has the capacity to enforce such a sweeping new rule that other nations including the US view as illegal and illegitimate.

But Raul (Pete) Pedrozo, professor of the law of armed conflict and professor of international law at the US Naval War College, warned that China’s moves would still destabilise the region.

He said the new demand “attacks” the international legal order that has governed the world’s oceans since the end of World War II – part of Beijing’s strategy to “coerce its neighbours, advance its national security and expansionist objectives, and solidify control over disputed waters and territory”.

“China is testing the international community to gauge how it will react to the new law,” he said.

Additional reporting by Robert Delaney

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: US rejects Beijing call for vessels to register