Trans-Pacific View

US Commander Warns China Against ‘Revising’ International Law in the South China Sea

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Trans-Pacific View

US Commander Warns China Against ‘Revising’ International Law in the South China Sea

A veiled warning implores Beijing to stop undermining the global rules-based system.

US Commander Warns China Against ‘Revising’ International Law in the South China Sea

Admiral Scott Swift, left, commander of U.S. Pacific Fleet,observes a seven-hour maritime surveillance mission earlier this year.

Credit: U.S. Navy Photo

The U.S. commander of the Pacific Fleet issued a veiled warning earlier this week against China to stop threatening the freedom of the seas and undermining the international rules-based system, which has been the foundation of global prosperity.

In remarks clearly directed at China, Admiral Scott Swift told a navy conference in Sydney on October 6 that some nations viewed freedom of the seas – which he called “the golden rule” of the rules-based system – as “up for grabs.” These countries, Swift said, imposed “superfluous warnings and restrictions” on navigational freedom that were inconsistent with international law, with “particularly egregious” limitations in contested waters like the South China Sea.

Swift was referring to manifestations of Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea over the past few years, including the erection of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea and the construction of artificial islands. If such efforts went uncontested, Swift argued in his speech to the Royal Australian Navy Seapower Conference, seen by The Diplomat, it would be a setback for global norms.

“If even one of these restrictions were successful, it would be a major blow to the international rules-based system with ramifications well beyond the maritime domain,” Swift said.

Restricting freedoms, values and rights that all actors enjoy in the international rules-based system through ‘might makes right’ approaches, Swift argued, would undermine global economic prosperity and return us to a world of mercantilism and protectionism that benefits only a handful of powerful states.

“If we are not willing to commit to resolve these differences peacefully, leveraging the tools of the international rules-based system that has served us so well, for so long, in an multilateral, inclusive way; then are we willing to accept the likelihood that imposed solutions to these national differences at sea, will seek us out in our supposed sanctuaries ashore?” Swift said.

For its part, the U.S. Pacific Fleet, Swift said, remains committed to defending the freedom of the seas and would continue to do so through various means, including exercises with allies and partners as well as freedom of navigation operations.

“We will continue to defend and protect it through routine presence, exercises with allies and partners, and freedom of navigation operations. We will continue to promote adherence to the framework of norms, standards, rules and laws that have enabled prosperity for so many maritime nations in this region,” he said.

Swift’s remarks came amid reports that the United States is moving closer to authorizing freedom of navigation operations within 12 nautical miles of China’s artificial islands in the South China Sea.

Earlier this year, Swift himself participated in a surveillance flight over the disputed South China Sea in an American spy plane, which was viewed as part of a firmer U.S. public campaign to demonstrate to China that its activities in the South China Sea will not undermine freedom of navigation and overflight.