The US has long maintained that freedom of navigation (FON) for warships in foreign 200-nautical-mile Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) is essentially “absolute.” China and some other countries disagree and have placed some restrictions on the activities of foreign warships and aircraft in their EEZs. But the US is undermining its own position by placing restrictions on its own military’s activities, and by extension those of foreign militaries, in its own EEZ.
Military activities in EEZs were a controversial issue during the negotiation of the text of the 1982 UN (UNCLOS) and continue to be so in state practice. Some coastal states contend that other states cannot carry out military exercises or manoeuvres in or over their EEZs without their consent. Indeed, Bangladesh, Brazil, Cape Verde, Pakistan, Malaysia, Myanmar, Uruguay, and most recently, US ally Thailand have declared that such military activities are not permitted in their EEZs without their consent. This is an extreme position that is protested and often tested by the US and other maritime powers.
A more moderate but still contentious aspect of this debate is whether or not coastal states like China have the right to limit foreign military activities in their own EEZs if they present threats to their marine environments. For the US to impose its own restrictions on such activities in its own EEZ is contrary to its position that FON for warships and warplanes in foreign EEZs cannot be restricted. However, that is exactly what has happened. The US has now designated a for the Main Hawaiian Islands insular false killer whale encompassing 17,500 square miles of waters around Hawaii extending well into the US EEZ. The habitat must be “free of anthropogenic noise that would significantly impair the value of the habitat for false killer whale use or occupancy.” This presumably includes the use of explosives and potentially damaging sonar. This is a significant signpost in this long-standing debate in the US — and the world at large. It is not the first such step, and it won’t be the last.
provides that “all US armed forces activities and exercises shall be carried out in a manner that avoids, to the extent practicable and consistent with operational requirement, adverse impacts on resources and qualities.” In 2013, a sided with environmental groups in their lawsuit against the US government over Navy training exercises off the West Coast involving sonar that they say harms endangered whales, dolphins and other protected marine mammals. Under a negotiated agreement, the US Navy will no longer carry out these tests or training exercises, nor set off explosives, in specified habitats around the Hawaiian Islands and southern California. The US also has a total of 14 encompassing nearly 800,000 square miles. Much of that is in its EEZ and includes sensitive marine ecosystems in waters off American Samoa, Hawaii, California and Texas. Designation as a protected area does not automatically prohibit military activities. But some protected areas do ban activities that disturb marine mammals, seabirds and sea turtles and even operation of aircraft over certain zones.
Restrictions on military activities in EEZs to protect the environment is a legal trend — at least in the US — and may serve as a precedent and model for other countries, including China. Environmental groups say mid-frequency sonar use by the US Navy has been linked to fatal mass strandings of marine mammals around the world, including in the Bahamas, Greece, the Canary Islands, and Spain. The balance between protection and the activities necessary to maintain “military readiness” is subject to “consultation” between the Pentagon and the appropriate agency to “minimize the impacts of their activities and ensure they are not likely to jeopardize the species.” Of course, this clause opens a large loophole. Nevertheless, it is clear that the US military and those of other nations are being “encouraged” to avoid environmentally deleterious activities within the designated areas, like mammal-damaging sonar, live fire, and the detonation of explosives.
The US or other countries may invoke customary international law that warships have immunity from coastal state jurisdiction. But UNCLOS provides that countries operating such warships are liable for any environmental or other damage caused by their operations.
However, the US continues to assert its expansive interpretation of FON and also continues to carry out intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions in others” EEZs. They do this despite protests by some countries including China that say some of these activities may be violating their domestic laws regarding, among others, protection of their environments. They also say that such activities do not pay “due regard” to the rights and duties of the coastal states as required by UNCLOS, especially their rights and duties to protect their environments including their fish and mammals, and their habitats and ecosystems. The US vigorously protests in word and deed these attempts to limit FON.
But what does the international Law of the Sea community say about this issue? State practice and authoritative commentators are divided on whether military manoeuvres, and particularly those involving the use of weapons, in the EEZs of foreign states without their consent are internationally lawful uses of the sea. They generally agree that simple naval transit and manoeuvres are part of FON. But they do not agree on whether an extended test of weapons, such as laying of depth charges, launching torpedoes, firing artillery or the laying of mines within an EEZ are included among the “normal uses associated with the operation of ships and aircraft.” But if the military activities involve live firing, explosives or sonar that may interfere with or damage mammals and fisheries directly or indirectly, the balance of interests established by (Basis for the resolution of conflicts regarding the attribution of rights and jurisdiction in the exclusive economic zone) would likely weigh in favour of the coastal state. While the latter could easily justify its rights and responsibility to ensure the management of its resources and the protection of its marine environment, the user state would have the more difficult task of explaining why its operations have to be conducted within that particular EEZ, and not on the high seas or within its own EEZ. Indeed, one of the lead negotiators on the Law of the Sea for the developing countries, , has stated “that the limitations of military uses in the exclusive economic zone are greater than those applied to similar activities carried out on the high seas,” and that a coastal state could “demand that a warship abandon the exclusive economic zone” if it failed to respect coastal state concerns.
The US or other countries may invoke customary international law that warships have immunity from coastal state jurisdiction. But UNCLOS provides that countries operating such warships are liable for any environmental or other damage caused by their operations. The fact that user states would be liable for damages is an “encouragement” to refrain from such activities. Clearly, constraints on military activities in foreign EEZs to protect the environment are expanding and the US is contributing to this movement. The US Navy should try to get ahead of the curve and cease its resistance to this trend and act pre-emptively to alter or relocate its more egregious environmentally damaging activities in other states’ EEZs. It should then negotiate guidelines that it can live with.