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The PRC, Taiwan, and Vietnam each claim sovereignty over the Paracel Islands. In violation of customary international law, all three claimants require either permission or advance notification before a military vessel or warship engages in “innocent passage” through the territorial sea. Under customary international law as reflected in the Law of the Sea Convention, the ships of all States –including their warships –enjoy the right of innocent passage through the territorial sea. The unilateral imposition of any authorization or advance-notification requirement for innocent passage is unlawful. By engaging in innocent passage without giving prior notification to or asking permission from any of the claimants, the United States challenged these unlawful restrictions imposed by the PRC, Taiwan, and Vietnam. The United States demonstrated that innocent passage is not be subject to such restrictions.
The United States also challenged the PRC’s 1996 declaration of straight baselines encompassing the Paracel Islands. Regardless of which claimant has sovereignty over these islands, it is unlawful to draw straight baselines around the Paracel Islands in their entirety. Customary international law as reflected in the Law of the Sea Convention is both clear and comprehensive regarding the circumstances under which States can depart from “normal” baselines. The PRC-claimed straight baseline violates international law of the sea as reflected in Article 7 of the Law of the Sea Convention. Furthermore, international law does not permit continental States, like the PRC, to establish baselines around entire dispersed island groups. With these baselines, the PRC has attempted to claim more internal waters, territorial sea, exclusive economic zone, and continental shelf than it is entitled to under international law. By conducting this operation, the United States demonstrated that these waters are beyond what the PRC can lawfully claim as its territorial sea, and that the PRC claimed straight baselines around the Paracel Islands are inconsistent with international law.
U.S. forces operate in the South China Sea on a daily basis, as they have for more than a century. They routinely operate in close coordination with like-minded Allies and partners that share our commitment to uphold a free and open international order that promotes security and prosperity. All of our operations are conducted safely, professionally, and in accordance with customary international law. The operations 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.