An October 26 patrol by a U.S. Navy warship into the Spratly archipelago — a part of the South China Sea that China considers its sovereign territory — has sparked tension between the United States and China.
Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of Sea (UNCLOS), a country has sovereignty over an area twelve nautical miles from its natural islands. China’s claim hinges on its control of two islands (the Subi and Mischief reefs) that the United States considers artificial as they were both submerged prior to a 2014 land reclamation project. As the Convention does not apply to artificial islands, the United States insists it was simply sailing through international waters when it came within twelve miles of the reefs. U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby stated, “[y]ou don’t need to consult with any nation when you are exercising the right of freedom of navigation in international waters.”
Some commentators think that the maneuver by the United States was partly intended to assuage fears of Chinese encroachment faced by U.S. allies in the region. Although China lays claim to the vast majority of the South China Sea, it faces rival claims from neighboring countries such as Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Taiwan. Additionally, some U.S. officials have said that the patrol was partly meant to test a Chinese pledge to not militarize the islands; satellite photos show that China has built three military-length airstrips in the Spratly archipelago thus far.