Since Russia invaded Ukraine, China has maintained that it respects Ukraine’s sovereignty and Russia’s security concerns. However, China’s actions reveal otherwise: China respects Russia, while it blatantly disrespects its neighbors’ sovereignty. For years, China has bullied The Philippines and other neighbors, building islands within their waters, harassing their fishermen and personnel, plundering fish from their waters, and blocking their routine military actions. And while the world focused on Russian troops amassing at the Ukraine border, China blatantly violated The Philippines’ sovereignty, presumably so it could spy on a US-Philippine military exercise. The Philippines only recently released information about the incident, and the world—distracted by Russia—has done almost nothing in response. The US and its allies must condemn China’s actions, call out its hypocrisy, and ensure that China stops violating its neighbors’ sovereign rights.
On January 29, a Chinese Navy reconnaissance ship entered the Sulu Sea and lingered for three days until February 1. The ship sailed near The Philippines’ Cuyo Island group and Apo Island before exiting the Sea. Under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), to which both The Philippines and China are parties, the Sulu Sea is entirely within The Philippines’ sovereign waters. The Chinese vessel did not comply with Philippine Navy demands for it to leave Philippine waters.
The spy ship’s sojourn in the Sulu Sea was a particularly egregious episode in China’s repeated infringements upon its neighbors’ sovereignty. The illegal incursion occurred during a military exercise by Philippine and U.S. Marines. The exercise, held between January 27 and February 2, was designed to boost the treaty allies’ mutual defense capabilities. Several U.S. Navy ships participated in the exercise, which involved a simulation of an amphibious landing on hostile soil. The intrusion also occurred as China is increasingly asserting control over the South China Sea, including its neighbors’ sovereign waters. China employs an extensive maritime militia disguised as a civilian fishing fleet to harass its neighbors and illegally plunder their fish. It brazenly spied on a U.S.-Australian military exercise last July.
On March 14, The Philippines summoned the Chinese envoy over the illegal incursion, making the incident public for the first time. The Philippines has not explained why it took more than a month to publicize or act on the violation of its sovereignty. The Philippine Congress promptly launched an inquiry into China’s recent, repeated violations of its waters. China claims that the ship was exercising the right of “innocent passage” pursuant to UNCLOS. However, UNCLOS requires that innocent passage be transit from one point to another that is “continuous and expeditious.” Lingering for three days cannot be considered expeditious or continuous. UNCLOS also specifies that innocent passage may not be “prejudicial to the peace, good order, or security” of the coastal state. An adversary reconnaissance ship sitting in sovereign waters during a major US-Philippine exercise could harm Philippine national security. Moreover, UNCLOS also specifies that a foreign warship must comply if asked to leave a state’s sovereign waters, which the Chinese ship did not. China could also have violated UNCLOS if evidence emerges that the Chinese ship was conducting military actions, research or survey activities, information that could harm Philippine defense or security, or any other activity unrelated to passage.
The U.S. must ensure that China is held accountable for its illegal actions. The cost of doing otherwise is undermining the rule of law. Right now, China has violated UNCLOS and infringed upon a U.S. ally’s sovereignty—and the U.S. has said and done nothing in response. China can easily claim to its people and to the world that it brazenly entered its neighbor’s territorial waters while U.S. and Philippine Marines practically watched from the shore and let them get away with it. The Pentagon has said that China’s new Maritime Traffic Safety Law is a “serious threat” to freedom of navigation. But the U.S. has just shown The Philippines and the world that it will allow China’s to violate the law of the sea without even a word in response.
The U.S. cannot stand by as China flexes its muscles. The U.S. must fight back—using lawfare. The U.S. must back The Philippines, condemn China’s illegal actions, and publicize China’s unlawful hypocrisy. Calling out China’s violations of international law gives the U.S. the moral high ground in future disputes, puts China on the defensive, and strengthens future international proceedings against China. At least one Philippine Representative has called for The Philippines to raise the issue of China’s repeated illegal incursions into its waters before the United Nations’ General Assembly meeting this Fall. The U.S. should support The Philippines in doing so. China cares greatly about whether its actions appear legitimate. China has harshly condemned a 2016 international court decision that it violated UNCLOS by infringing on The Philippines’ sovereignty, harassing its personnel, and in many other ways. China has repeatedly and harshly warned its neighbors against filing future international claimed, and condemned their reliance on the 2016 decision in U.N. filings. Recently, China condemned a January U.S. State Department report that debunks China’s illegal maritime claims in the South China Sea. China called the report an attempt to “distort international law, confuse the public, sow discord, and disrupt the regional situation.”
If the U.S. wants the rule of law to prevail, the U.S. must be unafraid to call China to account and condemn its actions before the world. As Russia pummels a U.S. partner, Ukraine, it is especially important for the U.S. assure its ally that it will staunchly stand with it against a malicious neighbor. Above all, the U.S. must let China know that it will not tolerate China’s violating international law even as Russia distracts the world. Xi is surely smacking his lips as the U.S. isolates Russia, knowing that only China can fill the resulting economic and political void. The U.S. cannot allow China to seize this opportunity to grab power and expand its influence. The U.S. must lay down the law.
(Disclosure: the author of this article is a professor at U.S. Marine Corps University and a civilian employee of the U.S. Marine Corps. As always, she writes in her personal capacity and her views are her own and do not necessarily represent those of the U.S. government).