Freedom of Navigation

The US has long maintained that it has complete freedom of navigation in international waters and airspace. That is, when nations claim certain waters outside the traditional 12 mile boundary as territorial waters, the US very rarely acknowledges that claim, and indeed will often conduct operations in those waters and airspace to emphasize the point. One example was the “Line of Death” that Libya claimed in the Gulf of Sidra. The US conducted air and sea operations in those waters on a regular basis. When the Libyans reacted with armed force, the US reacted violently.

Now comes word the Chinese are becoming obnoxious again, this time harrassing the USNS Impeccable in the South China Sea. China in many ways regards the SCS as their back yard. I don’t think I’ve ever heard them claim them as territorial waters, but they certainly think of it as their spere of influence.

USNS Impeccable
USNS Impeccable

The Impeccable is a ship owned by the Navy, but operated by civilians, as opposed to being a warship. Her mission is to gather accoustic intelligence on submarines. It may be that the Chinese chose this moment to interfere with her in order to frustrate some particular intel gathering opportunity. Or they may just have felt like being a pain. It is hard to tell.

Of course, this has shades of the incident in 2001 when Chinese fighters harrassed a US Navy EP-3E conducting operations over the South China Sea. When things got out of hand and the fighter collided with the US plane, the EP-3 crew had to make an emergency landing at Hainan Island, which is sovreign Chinese soil. And the Chinese of course, made getting both the crew, and later the EP-3 itself, a major hassle.

So, is China just being its usual obnoxious self, or are they testing the new President?

12 thoughts on “Freedom of Navigation”

  1. Apparently China maintains a claim to all of the South China Sea. Some believe it is for the purpose of trying to gain sovereignty over the Spratly Islands. China is not the only one. They are also claimed by the Phillippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei.

    Basically, they are all claiming the islands (about 5 sq km of land spread out of over 400K sq km) because why? You guessed it. They found oil there in 1968.

  2. I am told by those who would know that the intell machines on that plane were not destroyed and as a result the entire fleet had to re-do a lot of comms stuff.

    I vote for sending the carriers through the straits of Taiwan again soon.

  3. AndrewB, I think I saw you suggest that at Information Dissemination. And I fully support that. Or at least sending the Impeccable back. With a Burke.

    Bill, as you mention, the Spratley’s have been an item of contention for 40 years. If China has made a genuine claim to the SCS being territorial waters (as opposed to having a claim to the Spratley’s), no one pays attention to it.

  4. Xbrad,
    I looked up the island on Google Earth, I was surprised to see how close to China they were. the closest thing I can find that is analogous is if china sent a ship through the Florida Straits looking for subs 75 miles south of Key West. I can see that happening because of the strait. Unless we were going to Vietnam there was no obvious reason (to me) for us to be there.

  5. Vmax, the obvious reason to be there is to look for Chinese subs. The Impeccable is a T-AGOS, basically a small ship designed to tow a sonar array to listen for submarines. Originally designed to find Soviet subs in the North Atlantic, they’ve been adapted to hunting in other areas was well. In the Atlantic scenario, once a TAGOS has detected a Soviet sub, (at a range of maybe 100 miles) it would vector in a P-3 or other asset to localize, prosecute and attack the sub.

    Given the recent upswing in Chinese sub building and operations, it is no great surprise the Navy is interested in learning as much as they can about how and where the Chinese operate their sub fleet. They are also probably trying to define as well as possible the acoustic signature of said subs.

  6. Obviously that is the reason Xbrad. But damn that is like running onto the sea of Azof.
    If we can sneak a sub in fine, but a unarmed surveillance ship?

  7. V, that’s one reason why the USN is so big on maintaining that international waters are free and open to navigation. So any vessel from any nation can go about their legitimate business. For 233 years, we’ve claimed that right.

    As to territorial waters, the old limit was 3 miles, because that was the maximum range a shore based cannon could reach out and touch a foreign vessel. Now, the normal limit is 12 miles. Most nations claim a 200 mile Economic Exclusion Zone (ie, only they can fish or drill there) and we do respect that, but that has nothing to do with legitimate navigation of the sees.

    And even tho the vessel is unarmed, she’s still a US Naval Ship, flying our flag. If the Chinese wanna start something, that’s their option. Nothing good would come of it from either side.

  8. Actually it was Phib’s place. Galrahn however called me out on it. He isn’t as big a fan of such gunboat diplomacy.

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