International laws are the foundation for the modern global economy and diplomatic relations throughout the world. China’s recent actions in the South China Sea border on breaking these laws. The U.S. has a responsibility as the largest navy on the planet to help uphold these international conventions and ensure the principles of freedom of navigation in international waters.

Washington must conduct freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea. The U.S. must do this not only to protect its own economic interests in the region, but also to help maintain global diplomatic relations and prevent the further degradation of the environment in this region.

In the past 18 months, China has built military facilities, including an airstrip, on top of seven reefs covering more than 3,000 acres, according to the Pentagon. Under international law, these reefs and therefore the outposts built on top of them, are not considered legitimate islands.

Many other countries such as Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines also have historical ties and claims to the Spratly Islands. If the U.S. does not stay actively involved in patrolling the South China Sea, it will seem that Washington implicitly accepts China’s far-reaching territorial claims.

“If one country selectively ignores these rules for its own benefit, others will undoubtedly follow, eroding the international legal system and destabilizing regional security and the prosperity of all Pacific states,” Adm. Harry Harris, head of the U.S. Pacific Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in September.

Under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, which China signed in 1982, routes through these reefs and Chinese construction are open for international trade.  If China continues trying to establish sovereignty over these waters through the development of man-made islands, it could have a drastic effect on trade across the world.

The U.S. must continue actively patrolling these waters to help protect a major shipping route that carries over $5 trillion in global trade per year, with $1.2 trillion of these goods bound for American ports.

In addition to being important for trade routes, this area has the potential for large quantities of natural resources such as gas and oil. It is also an area of widespread fishing, which provides a livelihood for people of many of the countries in the region.

The U.S. Navy must also work to prevent the further environmental impact that these developments are having on the local ecosystems. This region is one of the richest and most biologically diverse marine ecosystems in the world.

According to The European Union Institute for Security Studies, the development has led to “overfishing, illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, marine pollution, and the degradation of unique natural habitats.”

The recent activity in the area has depleted regional fish stock by 40 percent and eradicated over 80 percent of large predatory fish. Intensive aquaculture and coastal development have led to the loss of 65 percent of coastal mangrove forests.

These environmental impacts also impact the daily lives of many local fishermen. The coastal pollution and the depletion of traditional fishing grounds are forcing fishermen to venture farther into disputed waters, increasing the likelihood of clashes with the law enforcement or militaries of rival countries. Now regular skirmishes between Vietnamese, Philippine and Chinese fishing vessels have cost hundreds of lives over the years and continue to stir up domestic and diplomatic tensions.

Washington must take responsibility as a world economic and military power to protect the environment, maintain diplomatic relations in the region, and ensure the freedom of waters that allow such a large amount of global shipping to go through them.

(Written by Morgan Weidner, edited by Terril Y. Jones; Nov. 22, 2015)

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