U.S. commander defends military activities inside EEZs

By Ellen T. Tordesillas

Posted at Jul 21 2015 01:57 AM | Updated as of Jul 21 2015 11:02 PM

The commander of United States Pacific Fleet said it is the stand of the US that international law allows them to conduct military activities in the 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zones of other countries.

Admiral Scott Harbison Swift , who was in the country last week as part of his familiarization tour having assumed the command last May 27, said, "The common view of UNCLOS is that it allows military operations within the EEZs of many countries."

He declared this U.S. position in an interview with a small group of reporters. Swift was asked about their view of freedom of navigation as China intensifies its activities in South China Sea. Reports earlier said the Chinese navy shooed away a U.S. surveillance plane over areas China is reclaiming.

Swift, whose previous assignment included being commander of the Seventh Fleet, cited as an example an incident last July 4 when four Russian long-range bomber aircraft flew close enough to the US shores and were intercepted by U.S.military fighter jets.

‘It’s entirely legal. There was no demarche or anything by the U.S (on the incident with Russia),” he said.

Swift added: “U.S. operates on a regular with the EEZs of multiple countries.”

He said they don’t coordinate with the coastal state concerned because there is no requirement for it.

Swift, however, stressed that the U.S. doesn’t operate on the territorial seas of other countries which are 12 nautical miles from the baseline of coastal states.

”We honor those territorial claims,” he said.

An article by Ramses Amer, associate professor in Peace and Conflict Research and associate fellow of the Institute for Security & Development Policy in Sweden, said China does not agree with the U.S. interpretation of military activities of other countries in an EEZ of a coastal state.

Amer said: “The U.S. believes that in the EEZ user States enjoy unqualified freedom of navigation and over flight as on the high seas. The U.S. argues that by combining Articles 58 and 87 of UNCLOS, all States enjoy in the EEZ the pre-existing navigational and over flight freedoms from when the zone was part of the high seas. These include military activities, such as operating military devices, intelligence gathering, surveillance and reconnaissance activities, exercises, operations, and conducting military surveys."

“China argues that the freedoms implied in Article 58 have some qualifications, including ‘due regard’ for the rights of all other States and the overarching principle of ‘for peaceful purpose/use.’” According to China’s line of argument, ‘freedom of navigation and over flight’ in the EEZ should not include the freedom to conduct military and reconnaissance activities, to perform military deterrence or battlefield preparation, or intelligence gathering. China maintains these activities infringe on the coastal state’s national security interests and can be considered a use of force, or a threat to use force, against the state, particularly with the advanced technologies used by the vessels."

Article 87 of the The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea says:

1. The high seas are open to all States, whether coastal or land-locked. Freedom of the high seas is exercised under the conditions laid down by this Convention and by other rules of international law. It comprises, inter alia, both for coastal and land-locked States:(a) freedom of navigation; (b) freedom of overflight;(c) freedom to lay submarine cables and pipelines, subject to Part VI;(d) freedom to construct artificial islands and other installations permitted under international law, subject to Part VI; (e) freedom of fishing, subject to the conditions laid down in section 2; (f) freedom of scientific research, subject to Parts VI and XIII.

2. These freedoms shall be exercised by all States with due regard for the interests of other States in their exercise of the freedom of the high seas, and also with due regard for the rights under this Convention with respect to activities in the Area.

Article 58 of The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea states: “In the exclusive economic zone, all States, whether coastal or land-locked, enjoy, subject to the relevant provisions of this Convention, the freedoms referred to in article 87 of navigation and overflight and of the laying of submarine cables and pipelines, and other internationally lawful uses of the sea related to these freedoms, such as those associated with the operation of ships, aircraft and submarine cables and pipelines, and compatible with the other provisions of this Convention."

Another significant issue that Swift was asked is whether the Mutual Defense Treaty can be invoked if China attacked or towed away BRP Sierra Madre in Ayungin Shoal.

He said the issue is a policy question.

"Thats a question that requires two agencies within theU.S. government to explore and answer- state Department and the Department of Justice."

The U.S. will soon expand its Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (Exercise CARAT), which is now bilateral, into a multilateral exercise that would include Japan.

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