We carry out freedom of navigation missions by sea and air--as we just did with a P-8 recon plane--all over the world.
The South China Sea is no exception, as our defense secretary said:
“There should be no mistake: the United States will fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows, as we do all around the world,” Carter said at the U.S. military’s joint base at Pearl Harbor.
This is a problem:
China asserts sovereignty over 80 percent of the resource-rich sea, which includes some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, and has been aggressively staking its claims by building large artificial islands. The United States and its Asian allies have vigorously opposed China’s territorial moves. With no one backing down, the impasse has raised the specter of a localized military conflict.
And note that we aren't alone in challenging China's unilateral actions contrary to international law:
Australia’s Defense Minister Kevin Andrews, in an interview with The Wall Street Journal from Singapore, said Canberra had sent long-range maritime patrol aircraft over the South China Sea and Indian Ocean, and would continue to do so despite the potential for obstruction from China.
And combined with increased Chinese military power, this attitude is dangerous:
Beijing certainly was not expected to take the US government’s criticisms of its land reclamation operations sitting down and has hit back at the US criticism of its reclamation around the Nansha Islands in the South China Sea, saying “no one has the right to instruct China on what to do.”
If this is China's official position, we're going to have a real problem:
"If the United States' bottom line is that China has to halt its activities, then a U.S.-China war is inevitable in the South China Sea," said an editorial Monday in the Global Times, a nationalist tabloid owned by the ruling Communist Party’s official newspaper.
While we take no particular role on who should own the various islands that provide limited claims of control (the "what"), we do insist that the disputes be resolved peacefully and we insist that owners comply with international law that the bulk of the sea is international waters (two important "how" issues).
And we do consider our allies' ownership of many of those islands to fall under our defense treaties absent an agreement with China that gives the land away.
So please explain how America joining the Law of the Sea treaty will have more effect on China, which signed the treaty yet does not abide by it, than our freedom of navigation exercises?
If China won't let anyone--or any treaty--tell them what to do, why pretend one more document signed with China will solve the problem of China?
We can't let China get away with their unilateral claims.
But we don't want to go to war with China over this.
Yet we need to support our allies in their claims and holdings to keep our allies.
But we also don't want a smaller ally to drag us into a war with China.
Needless to say, this is all delicate.
Thank God we have John Kerry as our Secretary of State!