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Do US Actions in the South China Sea Violate International Law?

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A confidential 2001 U.S. Navy-National Security Agency report revealed by Edward Snowden shows that China’s concerns regarding America’s intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) missions off its coasts are justified. The report details the scope of secrets exposed to China in the 2001 EP- 3 incident. That incident involved a collision between a U.S. Navy ISR plane and a Chinese jet fighter about 70 miles southeast of China’s militarily sensitive Hainan Island. Hainan hosts a large signals intelligence facility and air force and nuclear submarine bases. The EP 3 was damaged in the collision and made an emergency landing at a Chinese military base on Hainan. The report reveals that the EP-3 crew were unable to destroy all the secret data and systems on board. Chinese experts likely extracted the remaining intelligence secrets.

The United States flies hundreds of ISR missions every year in the region. They collect communications between the target country’s command-and-control centers and radar and weapons systems including surface-to-air missiles, anti-aircraft artillery and fighter aircraft. EP-3 activities have also been alleged to include interference with communications, jamming of radar and cyber attacks. Other U.S. ISR probes collect “actionable intelligence for expeditionary and irregular warfare.” China alleges that such activities abuse the principle of freedom of overflight and are a threat to its national security.

Another important secret that could have been — and probably was — extracted from the exposed information on board was, as The Intercept reported, that the United States has “the ability to locate and collect transmissions to or from Chinese submarines and to correlate them to specific vessels…” The plane also carried data that clarified “how much the U.S. knew about China’s submarine-launched ballistic missiles program…” This asset would be used as China’s response to a nuclear first strike by an adversary and is thus its fundamental deterrent against such an event and obviously a core national security........

© The Diplomat