When Does a Reef Become an Island, and Other Mysteries of the South China Sea

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

For anyone following the action in the South China Sea, as laid out in the previous posts collected in this Thread, I highly recommend a post at the LawFareBlog on the fine points of the dispute. It’s by Adam Klein and Mira Rapp-Hooper, and it carefully delineates the differing claims that China, the United States, and other countries are making about the rocks/islands/reefs/airstrips in the South China Sea — and the differing ways in which U.S. Navy ships passing through this area can establish freedom-of-navigation principles.

The whole thing is closely argued and worth reading. Here is the payoff point on what they recommend as the highest-payoff approach with the least gratuitous provocation:

According to Klein and Rapp-Hooper, the Navy should conduct “normal operations” — that is, anything they would feel free to do on the open seas — near “low-tide elevations.” These are reefs or other locations that are submerged at high tide and exposed at low tide, and on some of which China has built artificial structures. These low-tide elevations don’t normally convey territorial-water privileges; one of the issues at dispute is whether, by building new islands there, China can create new territorial rights. Klein and Rapp-Hooper say about their recommended strategy, with emphasis added:

  • What this would entail: A U.S. Navy surface vessel sails within 12 nm of a low-tide elevation, or an artificial island built on a low-tide elevation, such as Mischief, Subi, or Gaven Reefs, while conducting normal operations. Vessels could conduct searches or military maneuvers, indicating that they are not engaging in innocent passage.
  • What message it would send: This operation would indicate that the United States does not recognize a territorial sea in the area of operations, but rather views the water as the high seas, and is exercising accordingly. This would send the signal that Chinese construction on low-tide elevations does not confer a territorial sea.
  • Analysis: This seems like the appropriate, and most likely, course of action. It clearly addresses the core legal disagreement between the parties: whether human improvements to a land feature increase the maritime rights that attach to it.

Thanks to the authors for this clarification, and to Judah Grunstein of World Politics Review, quoted here yesterday, for the tip.