The United States is concerned with China’s new action requiring ships to report innocent passage in the South China Sea which could be a source of potential conflicts once enforced, said US Coast Guard Vice-admiral Michael McAllister.   

McAllister noted that this action “runs directly counter to international agreements” and could trigger conflicts since the South China Sea, of which includes the West Philippine Sea, is an international maritime super-highway. 

“I would offer the new reporting requirements for ships on innocent passage to the South China Sea, certainly based on the reporting, seems to run directly counter to international agreements and norms,” McAllister told journalists during the Asia-Pacific Media Hub virtual forum last week.  

“If our reading is correct, these are very concerning, and that’s because they begin to build foundations for instability and potential conflicts if those are enforced,” he added.

The US, he said, is in the region to support key partners that are growing increasingly concerned over China’s aggressive and coercive actions, and the concerns of these US partners with their lack of capability or capacity to adequately respond to those actions.

“We do cooperate with China on areas of mutual interest between the US and China; not a whole lot of cooperative activity in the South China Sea,” McAllister said.

South China Sea is a maritime super-highway, said McAllister, and coast guard-to-coast guard cooperation is critical in the region for building good maritime governance.

Regardless of the various claimants of the South China Sea, US Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM) earlier said that the US challenged unlawful restrictions imposed by China, Taiwan and Vietnam requiring either permission or advance notification before a foreign military vessel, including the US, engages in “innocent passage.”

“This freedom of navigation operation upheld the rights, freedoms and lawful uses of the sea recognized in international law by challenging unlawful restrictions on innocent passage imposed by China, Vietnam and Taiwan,” the USINDOPACOM said.

China, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei, and the Philippines each claim sovereignty over some or all of the Spratly Islands.

But China, Vietnam, and Taiwan, according to USINDOPACOM, require either permission or advance notification before a foreign military vessel engages in “innocent passage” through the territorial sea.

Under 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 not permitted by international law,” USINDOPACOM said.

“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 China, Taiwan and Vietnam. The United States demonstrated that innocent passage may not be subject to such restrictions,” it added.

Unlawful and sweeping maritime claims in the South China Sea pose a serious threat to freedom of the sea, including freedoms of navigation and over-flight, free trade and unimpeded commerce, and freedom of economic opportunity for South China Sea littoral nations, McAllister said.