China Vs Freedom of Navigation in South China Sea

Written by Amit Sharma

Freedom of navigation is one of the oldest and most recognized principles in the legal regime governing ocean space.The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (hereinafter “the Convention”) makes ample reference to the freedom of navigation, for example in article 36 (freedom of navigation in straits used for international navigation), article 58 (freedom of navigation in the exclusive economic zone), article 78 and article 87 (high seas). In this context, the right of innocent passage in the territorial sea and through archipelagic waters as specified in articles 17 to 26 and 52 of the Convention should also be mentioned, as well as the freedom of transit passage in straits used for international navigation (article 38 of the Convention). The three freedoms mean the same – freedom of movement of ships. What distinguishes them is the different influence coastal States may exercise on the freedom of movement. Having said all of this, let’s understand

Why is the South China Sea contentious?

China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei all have competing claims.

China has backed its expansive claims with island-building and naval patrols. The US says it does not take sides in territorial disputes, but has sent military ships and planes near disputed islands, calling them “freedom of navigation” operations to ensure access to key shipping and air routes.

Both sides have accused each other of “militarising” the South China Sea.

There are fears that the area is becoming a flashpoint, with potentially serious global consequences.

What is the argument about?

It is a dispute over territory and sovereignty over ocean areas, and the Paracels and the Spratlys – two island chains claimed in whole or in part by a number of countries.

Alongside the fully fledged islands, there are dozens of rocky outcrops, atolls, sandbanks and reefs, such as the Scarborough Shoal.

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Amit Sharma

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