- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 17, 2001

Pieces of the Navy EP-3 surveillance aircraft forced down on Hainan Island three months ago, after being rammed by a Chinese fighter, have finally arrived back on American soil.
It is time to look again at why these reconnaissance flights off China's coast are important and should be resumed on a regular basis. They do not only monitor China's aggressive military buildup. They also serve to contest Beijing's efforts to enclose the South China Sea and make it a Chinese lake.
Beijing's demand that the United States bear full responsibility for the EP-3 incident is rooted in an expansive interpretation of its rights within 200 miles of its coast. Beijing's Embassy in Washington has argued,"The incident happened in the airspace over China's exclusive economic zone . According to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea , overflight over the EEZ of another nation should not violate the general rules of the international law such as the inviolable nature of national sovereignty and territorial integrity."
By such statements, China is attempting to illegitimately apply the standards of sovereignty it enjoys in its territorial sea to its economic zone.
The UNCLOS provides for a territorial sea of a maximum breadth of 12 nautical miles and coastal state sovereign rights over fisheries and other natural resources in an EEZ that may extend to 200 nautical miles from the coast. This control can even extend beyond 200 miles, to as far as 350 miles, if rooted in a claim to the continental shelf. These definitions place about one-third of the world's oceans under some degree of national control.
The UNCLOS did not, however, eliminate the traditional rights of free passage through the new EEZs. UNCLOS preserved the rights of military and commercial navigation and overflight in areas under coastal state jurisdiction and on the high seas beyond. It guaranteed passage for all ships and aircraft through, under and over straits and archipelagos used for international navigation, in the EEZs and on the continental shelf.
As a maritime power, with a powerful Navy and extensive commercial trade relations, the United States has worked to preserve as much of the traditional principles of "freedom of the seas" as possible. In contrast, China has sought to expand sovereign control of the waters as far out from shore as possible, and in the process become the champion of those Third World and minor coastal states who have wanted protection from sea-based Western influence. The UNCLOS left enough ambiguity on these points to breed continuing conflict.
In February 1992, the National People's Congress passed a law unilaterally claiming sovereignty over not only Taiwan, but the Spratlys, Paracels, and Diaoyutai/Senkaku islands. The law declared that the Chinese military had the right to patrol these waters and "to adopt all necessary measures to prevent and stop the harmful passage of vessels through its territorial waters." If China can maintain this claim to the Spratly and Paracel islands, with their associated EEZs and continental shelf extensions, it will have enclosed most of the South China Sea.
China has been conducting large-scale naval maneuvers in these disputed waters all month. Beijing sources said the main goals of the initial exercises were to practice "attacking and occupying an outlying Taiwanese island and fighting off an aircraft carrier" — a clear reference to a possible clash with the U.S. Navy. Continuing activities seem, however, to be aimed at establishing sovereign claims over more than just Taiwan.
A dozen Chinese warships recently transited waters close to the Spratlys, and Beijing has sent warships to Scarborough Reef. In addition to building a military structure on Mischief Reef, China has also occupied and erected military installations on Fiery Cross Reef, Cuarteron Reef, and Johnson Reef, and on Woody Island in the Paracels.
The United States regularly challenges claims that would enclose larger areas of the oceans by conducting "freedom of navigation exercises" by naval and air units. The most dramatic of these exercises were conducted by the Reagan administration to counter Libya's claim that the entire Gulf of Sidra was its territorial waters. These exercises led to armed clashes between American and Libyan air and naval forces in August 1981 and March 1986, from which the U.S. emerged triumphant.
In the wake of the EP-3 incident, it was suggested in some circles that Washington could still collect intelligence data even if it rerouted surveillance flights outside China's EEZ, and should do so to avoid future confrontations. This argument ignores the critical role confrontation plays in disputing illegitimate claims. China will carve out as large an ocean empire as others will allow by acquiescence.
Shortly after the EP-3 incident, an Australian navy task force was challenged by a Chinese warship in the Taiwan Straits. When the Chinese ordered the Australians to leave the area, their commander refused. The task force continued on its way, successfully asserting the right to transit international waters.
American air and naval forces must continue to show the same spirit and regularly transit through China's EEZ. Otherwise, not only Beijing but other coastal states will be emboldened to blur the difference between EEZ and territorial sea to the detriment of vital U.S. security interests and the hallowed principle of "freedom of the seas."

William R. Hawkins is senior fellow for national security studies at the U.S .Business and Industry Council Education Foundation.

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