Freedom of Navigation versus Freedom of the Seas

The President of the People’s Republic of China, Xi Jinping, is seen pushing the United States’ 44th president Barack Obama back with a croupier stick in order to stop American military involvement in the South China Sea
The President of the People’s Republic of China, Xi Jinping, is seen pushing the United States’ 44th president Barack Obama back with a croupier stick in order to stop American military involvement in the South China Sea

In Heng Kim Song’s political cartoon “Heng on the South China Sea Dispute” the United States (U.S.) is seemingly infringing upon China’s sovereignty in the South China Sea under the pretext of the current International Law of Freedom of Navigation. The South China Sea (SCS) region has been a zone of conflict for many years after World War II with territorial and jurisdictional disputes. Having multiple nations fighting over potential natural resource deposits, fishing grounds, and strategic control over the waterways and islands make this region very dangerous. Currently, many of the countries in the region are working for peace and resolution. However, the U.S. has been sending military vessels under the pretext of Freedom of Navigation to spy on the islands owned by China due to speculation that the country is building major weaponry and military equipment on the Paracels, Spratlys, Macclesfield Bank, and Pratas groups of islands, threatening U.S. commerce and allied nations. Beijing has issue with the U.S.’s spying and over-extensive interpretation of the Freedom of Navigation agreement leading to tension and negative confrontation. This is also apparent in John Knott’s 1937 cartoon “What Price Freedom of the Seas?” where the U.S.’s interpretation of the ideology: Freedom of the Seas, has led to conflict and opposing opinions from the general public. In 1937, the upkeep of commerce and geo-political control over the seas was very important to the U.S. and they tried to maintain commerce with belligerent nations under the pretext of Freedom of the Seas. The importance of commerce and control is still apparent today in the South China Sea. Although 80 years apart, both cartoons depict the U.S. interpreting the notion that the seas are neutral, differently from other nations and people (whether the notion is an ideology or a law).

An article by Ankit Panda that sheds light on Heng’s cartoon is called “China Reacts Angrily to Latest US South China Sea Freedom of Navigation Operation” from the international news magazine: The Diplomat. The article presents both sides to the dispute. The U.S.’s argument is that “China claims to support freedom of navigation, but discriminates between civilian and military vessels” because they have captured American military vessels and drones in the past. While China’s argument is “Its [the U.S.’s] behavior has violated the Chinese law and relevant international law, infringed upon China’s sovereignty, disrupted peace, security and order of the relevant waters and put in jeopardy the facilities on the Chinese islands, and thus constitutes a serious political and military provocation.” (Panda) This article and other articles like “Protecting Freedom of Navigation in the South China Sea” from the Diplomat challenge the U.S. to ratify the UNCLOS before demanding other nations to allow them near their land under the international law.

The UNCLOS is “a comprehensive framework for the regulations of all ocean space” created in the third United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea between the years 1973 and 1984. The UNCLOS set regulation rules for many different situations including: “…the limits of the territorial sea, contiguous zone, exclusive economic zone and continental shelf of individual states; the right of access to the sea, freedom of navigation and other lawful uses of the sea in various maritime zones; exploitation, conservation and management of living resources of the sea; deep sea mining in the area beyond the limits of national jurisdiction; marine scientific research; protection and preservation of the marine environment; and the settlement of disputes.” (Mensah 463) As of today there are 157 signatories (countries that have signed) that include both the U.S. and China. However, the U.S. never ratified this treaty, making China doubt the legitimacy the U.S. has on using this law for its Freedom of Navigation operations in the SCS.

The United States has always believed in having neutral oceanic territory across the globe from the Jefferson Embargo Act of 1807 to today. This “Freedom of the Seas” idea allowed nations to travel across all waterways for commerce, natural resource hunting, and simple passage across the oceans without fear of being attacked by other nations near their waterways. This idea is still extremely important to the U.S. today because of commerce, international business, and natural resource deposits rely heavily on being able to send ships freely through the seas.   However, this was only an idea, mostly reinforced through intimidation from the U.S. and small agreements between allied nations. The introduction of the UNCLOS in 1994 legally set this ideology in international law, changing the idea of “Freedom of the Seas” to “Freedom of Navigation” with many nations signing onto it, ratifying it, and abiding by it. This change gave the U.S. more incentive and protection to spy on China’s current developments on their islands (shared by many allied nations to the U.S. like Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines).

The main region of conflict in the SCS are the many groups of islands often categorized into the Paracels, Spratlys, Macclesfield Bank, and Pratas (these islands are also often simply grouped into either the Paracel islands which are all the islands in the northeast, and the Spratlys islands -northwest). These islands are currently owned by six claimates: Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines, and China. All of these nations recognize that “the Sea is one of the primary routes for international trade, and many claimants believe that the Sea hides bountiful oil reserves in addition to its plentiful fishing stocks.” (Mirski) However, it wasn’t always this way, in fact, at the end of World War II, no claimate owned a single one of these islands. Ownership of these islands only gained attention a year after the war: “Then, in 1946, China established itself on a few features in the Spratlys, and in early 1947, it also snapped up Woody Island, part of the Paracel Islands chain.” (Mirski) But the SCS was still not seen as a priority until 1955 and 1956 where other nations started to claim different portions of these island chains. In the 1970’s claiming these islands became even more urgent to the nations surrounding them because oil was found beneath the waters. This led to invasions and the Battle of the Paracel islands where many Vietnamese were killed by Chinese naval forces. China later invaded more chains in 1988 killing more Vietnamese people. In 1995 China built bunkers above Mischief Reef for protection, causing a dangerous increase of tension between all the claimates.

In response to this rivalry, in 2002 China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN- which included Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Myanmar (Burma), Cambodia, Laos) came together to sign the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the SCS. (Mirski) The declaration was “a code ‘to lay the foundation of long-term stability’ with respect to the territorial dispute.” (Baviera 348) This code’s purpose is to provide stability and peace between all the nations involved in the Sea, but it can only be upkept if all parties act civilly and peacefully. Today the U.S. speculates that China is beginning to show threatening signs of neglecting this code with the numerous sightings of increased militarization on these islands, threatening the friendly nations and U.S. commerce. (McLaughlin)

The reason for U.S. involvement in the Sea (other than for maintenance of free trade) is due to satellite images taken in 2015 revealing increased militarization on Chinese man-made islands. These man-made islands have been on the news since 2015: “China has begun secretly constructing a military airstrip on a man-made island in the South China Sea, provoking alarm among countries in the region already fearful of its increasingly aggressive actions. Satellite images released by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington show that Chinese workers have constructed a third of a runway, eventually expected to be almost two miles long, on Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratly Islands.” (Coghlan) The speculation around these islands is that they will be vital landing pads and pubs for military ships and planes as China wards off other claimates or eventually decides to invade the other islands. More images were captured later by drones, satellite, and planes throughout 2016, confirming American speculation. Beijing has had a number of these drones seized due to a violation on their Freedom of Navigation interpretation, making the U.S. want to send even more drones due to this need for secrecy.

The cartoon itself shows two main characters: Barack Obama and Xi Jinping who represent the leadership of the United States and the Republic of China at the time this cartoon was published. They are depicted standing at a sand table with models of jets, missiles, flags, and military vessels often used to coordinate war strategies. As Obama moves a jet towards where the Chinese arrows point, Xi Jinping pushes Obama back with a croupier stick while exclaiming “Beat it!” This cartoon depicts the conflicts going in the SCS on a smaller scale being just between Barack Obama and Xi Linping in a small room, around a sand table. The sand table is often used in war strategies, and this depiction in the cartoon shows the geo-political “game” these two leaders are playing. The consequences of this political game can be detrimental. The cartoon’s small-scale depiction and inclusion of toy planes and ships may also have a different meaning… Both nations think the other’s interpretation of the law is faulty, but not many things have been done to resolve the conflict, similar to arguments made by children on a playground. The model planes, ships, and the phrase “Beat it!” make Xi Linping look like a school bully on a playground, shooing away another kid wanting to play with the jets. Knowing the true magnitude of the actual conflict makes this interpretation seem a bit out there, but it may be Heng criticizing the actions made by both leaders that led to no resolution.

Behind Obama is a door with the word “Asia” written on it, suggesting that the rest of Asia may be metaphorically “behind closed doors” in this conflict because of how much more powerful both the U.S. and China are than the other Asian nations involved in this ordeal. Although much of the other claimates in this conflict are geographically much closer to China than the U.S., they are allowing the U.S. to continue getting involved in the SCS for personal interest. Barack Obama in this cartoon is in-front of the door that says Asia, representing the other countries and standing at the frontline against China. Many of these smaller nations depend of the U.S. for its umbrella of defense. Xi Linping pushing Obama back with a stick instead of a serious weapon also shows that the conflict for now is somewhat peaceful for the time being.

The U.S. involvement in the South China Sea is heavily based on the maintenance of international trade. The U.S. is taking actions that respect its interpretation of Freedom of Navigation, but so is China. As of today, there is no concrete resolution between these two interpretations, all the while the tensions keep rising. This is also apparent in John Knott’s cartoon where different groups of people and belligerent nations interpreted the ideology of Freedom of the Seas differently. In the Knott cartoon belligerent nations violated the ideology and it pushed America into the war, as many citizens predicted. Currently both China and the U.S. think the other is violating the law, and this is only leading to confrontation and conflict. The parallels of these instances that are 80 years apart are staggering, but hopefully this time the U.S. will not repeat history, and not enter a World War for a third time.


Works Cited

Baviera, Aileen S.P. “The South China Sea Disputes After the 2002 Declaration: Beyond Confidence-Building.” ASEAN-China RelationsRealities and Prospects, edited by Saw Swee-Hock, et al., Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2005, pp. [344]-355. Gale Virtual Reference Library, Accessed 15 Nov. 2017.

Coghlan, Tom. “Satellite images show China’s secret island airstrip” Times, The (United Kingdom) news edition 2, EBSCO Industries Inc. 18 April 2015. Web.

Gates, Douglas. “Protecting Freedom of Navigation in the South China Sea.” The Diplomat. 28 May 2015. Web. 12 November 2017.

Heng Kim Song. “Heng on the South China Sea Dispute.” New York Times. print.  22 February 2016.

McLaughlin, Elizabeth. “What you need to know about tensions in the South China Sea.” ABC News. 17 March 2017. Web. 12 November 2017.

Mensah, Thomas A. “UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea).” Encyclopedia of Global Environmental Change, edited by Ted Munn, et al., vol. 4: Responding To Global Environmental Change, Wiley, 2002, pp. 462-463. Gale Virtual Reference Library, Accessed 15 Nov. 2017.

Mirsky, Sean. “The South China Sea Dispute: A Brief History.” Lawfare. Publ. by the Lawfare Institute in Cooperation With Brookings. 8 June 2015. Web.

Panda, Ankit. “China Reacts Angrily to Latest US South China Sea Freedom of Navigation Operation.” The Diplomat. 4 July 2017. Web.  3 November 2017.