One Maritime Law Debate That Is Finally Over

The National Interest, Online, Forthcoming

6 Pages Posted: 16 Oct 2015 Last revised: 3 Nov 2015

See all articles by Jonathan G. Odom

Jonathan G. Odom

Government of the United States of America - U.S. Navy Judge Advocate General's Corps

Date Written: October 8, 2015


For nearly two decades, the People's Republic of China has been employing what its military strategists now describe as "legal warfare" in the maritime domain. With a comprehensive system of excessive maritime claims along its coast, China has used international law "as a weapon" in a deliberate, strategic effort to achieve the military objectives of anti-access and area denial (A2/AD). In recent years, however, that strategic approach has been at odds with China's need for a global Navy to protect its interests around the world. Consistency -- a fundamental principle of international law -- presented China with a maritime dilemma: either embrace the freedom of the seas or be criticized for applying double standards in its international relations. What would China decide to do?

In September 2015, five warships from the People’s Republic of China (PRC) transited through U.S. territorial seas off the coast of Alaska, near the Aleutian Islands. This transit by China’s warships, coupled with China’s recurring military activities in the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of other nations between 2012 and 2015, demonstrate a realization that China needs the freedom of the seas now more than ever, and a reality that China’s view of the applicable international law must evolve to respect that freedom fully in order for China to enjoy it globally. Consequently, the recent actions of China’s navy have closed this chapter of China’s "legal warfare" forever.

To be sure, in the months and years ahead, the Presidents, diplomats, military leaders, commentators, and academics from the two nations can and should discuss a variety of issues affecting U.S-China relations and international security. But one topic that is no longer worthy of discussion is the legality of foreign military activities in China’s EEZ or the right of foreign warships to transit through China’s territorial seas. That legal debate is over…finally.

Keywords: International Law, Law of the Sea, Legal Warfare, China, Military Activities

Suggested Citation

Odom, Jonathan G., One Maritime Law Debate That Is Finally Over (October 8, 2015). The National Interest, Online, Forthcoming, Available at SSRN:

Jonathan G. Odom (Contact Author)

Government of the United States of America - U.S. Navy Judge Advocate General's Corps ( email )

United States

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