Rough Waters in the South China Sea: Navigation Issues and Confidence-Building Measures


Ji Guoxing

Asia Pacific Issues, No. 53


Honolulu: East-West Center

Publication Date: August 2001
Binding: paper
Pages: 8
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In the wake of a collision between a U.S. spy plane and a Chinese jet fighter off the coast of Hainan in April 2001, verbal skirmishing between the United States and China revealed sharply different conceptions of jurisdictional and navigational principles. These differences persist and will likely be the cause of future conflicts; they have already caused strife among countries ringing the South China Sea. Central to these conflicts are the exclusive economic zones (EEZ) that extend 200 nm into the sea from coastal nations' baselines. Created by the UN Law of the Sea Convention, these zones attempt to accommodate coastal states' interest in controlling offshore resources and maritime powers' interests in maintaining freedom of navigation. But ambiguities in the Convention's language combined with coastal states' proliferating EEZ claims have created a tinderbox. The situation will remain volatile as long as the focus remains on jurisdictional disputes. But confidence-building efforts aimed more narrowly--on practical navigation issues and managing "incidents at sea"--offer a starting point for first bilateral and then multilateral agreements.