For some time now China has been in the progress of creating the Spratly Islands, they are artificial islands that are being crafted in the middle of disputed territory in the South China sea. Washington and Beijing have been at odds with one another, over whether or not the U.S. has the right to send their military planes and ships over to the Spratly Islands. Currently, the Chinese military is said to be providing “open seas protection” to the ongoing operation, and they've effectively armed the newly created islands now with weapons for defense. For now, the project continues to create tensions in the surrounding area, not only with the U.S., but also with Vietnam, the Philippines, and others.
Aside from the U.S., it is alleged that high-level military personnel of countries that are allied with Australia, are now leaning on the nation's navy and air force to attempt conducting “freedom of navigation” missions in the area. They want to orchestrate these missions in an effort to retaliate and show the Chinese that there is wide-spread disapproval. However, despite the growing discontent from neighbors, China asserts that it is fully within its sovereign rights in developing the islands; being made from piling sand on top of reefs and atolls. It is estimated that China has created at least 2,000 acres of dry land since 2014.
Despite their confidence that they are within their rights, the U.S. has been trying to argue that man-made constructions cannot be used to claim sovereignty and they worry along with others that this project will be used to expand Chinese military presence into the area. China has neglected to mention what additional measures it might employ in order to protect its sovereignty claims for the islands. China has also insinuated that perhaps countries might just be looking for a reason to stir-up trouble, “I don't rule out that certain countries are looking for excuses to take certain actions,' said Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman Yang Yujun.
The U.S. continues to hold onto the claim that it has the right for its warships and aircraft to conduct military operations in and over the area there of international waters. But now, China has indicated that the U.S. will be crossing a line if it decides to send its warships too close to the newly created Spratly Islands. According to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, every country has the right to control territorial waters that stretch at least 12 nautical miles from its coast. They also have the right to claim an exclusive economic zone (regulating economic activity in the area like fishing and mining) that extends up to 200 nautical miles. Foreign warships are allowed “innocent passage” through these areas, but they wouldn't be allowed to openly conduct military operations in these areas.
The U.N. Convention makes it clear that states can build artificial islands in their exclusive economic zones, but those states are only allowed to base their claims to maritime rights on naturally formed land features. For now, the U.S. continues to conduct surveillance and other military operations throughout the South China Sea.
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