By Howard W. French,
When U.S. officials complained at the annual Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore early this month that a Chinese naval vessel had dangerously cut off a U.S. destroyer in international waters as it passed through the Taiwan Strait, China’s defense minister had a ready-made answer for how such hazards could best be avoided in the future.
“For China, we always say mind your own business, take good care of your own vessels, your fighter jets, take good care of your own territorial airspace and waters,” said Gen. Li Shangfu. “If that is the case, then I don’t think there will be future problems.”
The United States has long used the standard, internationally ratified definition of what constitutes “innocent passage” to justify sending warships through the territorial waters of many other nations, and, in the case of China, patrolling the seas close to the Chinese coast. The same has been true of U.S. military aircraft flying near China in international airspace.
For China, which in recent years has acquired ever more impressive means to push back with a powerful naval fleet and sophisticated air force of its own, the U.S. position amounts to what Beijing calls “hegemony of navigation,” by which it seems to mean taking maximal advantage of international rules that were largely conceived in the spirit of Western legal traditions and enacted during a long era of scarcely challenged Western power.
From the instant one looks more closely, though, things become more complicated. For one, China has ratified laws of the sea that it now complains about, and the United States, remarkably—and I am tempted to say to its shame—has not.