On September 8, USS Benfold (DDG 65) asserted navigational rights and freedoms in the Spratly Islands, consistent with international law. This freedom of navigation operation (“FONOP”) upheld the rights, freedoms, and lawful uses of the sea. USS Benfold demonstrated that Mischief Reef, a low-tide elevation in its natural state, is not entitled to a territorial sea under international law.
The People’s Republic of China (PRC)’s statement about this mission is false. USS Benfold conducted this FONOP in accordance with international law and then continued on to conduct normal operations in international waters. The operation reflects the U.S. commitment to uphold freedom of navigation and lawful uses of the sea as a principle.
The United States will continue to fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows, as USS Benfold did here. Nothing PRC says otherwise will deter the U.S.
The People’s Liberation Army (Navy) PLA(N)’s statement is the latest in a long string of PRC actions to misrepresent lawful U.S. maritime operations and assert its excessive and illegitimate maritime claims at the expense of its Southeast Asian neighbors in the South China Sea.
The PRC’s behavior stands in contrast to the United States’ adherence to international law and the vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific region. All nations, large and small, should be secure in their sovereignty, free from coercion, and able to pursue economic growth consistent with accepted international rules and norms.
The United States engaged in “normal operations” within 12 nautical miles of Mischief Reef. Under international law as reflected in the Law of the Sea Convention, features like Mischief Reef that are submerged at high tide in their naturally formed state are not entitled to a territorial sea.
The land reclamation efforts, installations, and structures built on Mischief Reef do not change this characterization under international law. By engaging in normal operations within 12 nautical miles of Mischief Reef, the United States demonstrated that vessels may lawfully exercise high-seas freedoms in those areas.
U.S. forces routinely conduct freedom of navigation assertions throughout the world. All of its operations are designed to be conducted in accordance with international law and demonstrate that the United States will fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows—regardless of the location of excessive maritime claims and regardless of current events.
The United States upholds freedom of navigation as a principle. The Freedom of Navigation Program’s missions are peaceful and conducted without bias for or against any particular country. These missions are rule-of-law based and demonstrate our commitment to upholding the rights, freedoms, and lawful uses of the sea and airspace guaranteed to all nations.
Freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea are a part of daily operations of U.S. military forces throughout the region.
Image credit: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Deanna C. Gonzales. The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Benfold (DDG 65) transits the South China Sea while conducting routine underway operations. Benfold is forward-deployed to the U.S. 7th Fleet area of operations in support of a free and open Indo-Pacific.