There are certain nuances and technicalities within the above guidelines so it eventually ends up being 20 miles because if there’s a submerged continental reef, then shall we consider it as deep sea or shallow waters? But rules get applied accordingly. There is a whole chapter on how to handle territorial claims of nations which have archipelago configurations. Shall it be treated as de facto land and given its own TW and EEZ or shall it be granted only a nominal TW?And so, in most cases they end up creating an exception called archipelago baseline (AB). And most of the times AB + TW roughly ends up being 20 miles. Because of the way ocean beds are formed, most of the times they are uneven and the dichotomy between land and sea isn’t well defined so more than 95% of all land-sea borders have a natural continental shelf which ends up extending the AB. So the arithmetic ends up with supplementary TW extension from the legal 12 miles to de facto 20 miles. The earlier diagram was just a make shift one for school children, this one explains it better. The deeper interest you take in it, the more complicated and interesting it gets.
Consider all these rules, exceptions, islands etc and you will understand how difficult it is to define a non-disputed boundary. Imagine now how complicated it gets once there are conflicting or overlapping claims? Our conflict with Myanmar and Bangladesh is one such example which will make anyone pull their hair.
The same game is being played out in South China Sea where China is treating the continental shelf as de facto land and then extending their argument from there to claim full sovereignty over those grey areas. Legally, there’s no right or wrong and so if you observe carefully, no American propaganda channel (colloquially known as ‘media’) ever calls it a legal dispute. The only notion they keep harping on is “this behaviour might lead to conflict”, basically taking not a legal stance, but a moral one. It is a cryptic way of saying “we will beat you if you try to claim the grey area which we have illegally monopolized until now”. Morally and dispassionately speaking, China has a greater right over that area than a foreign power from another continent, but because China has been so rude to its neighbours, they are happy to see China bleed. Compare China’s territorial claims to the one which Japan made, in cohorts with their masters i.e. USA, and China’s transgressions seem trivial in comparison. Since claims over territorial waters extend themselves into Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) protocols, it impacts the control of airspace as well.
The US allowed a large overlapping claim to arise between China and Japan by allowing (read : encouraging) Japan to redefine the territorial claims over Senkaku Islands. In fact, it was this imperialist aggression which provoked China to open up another front and that is how the South China Sea dispute came into being as a response to US over-smartness, just like the Syria and Ukraine came into being, not the other way round, as the American media claims. They are trying to put the horse before the cart and sell snake oil to the world if they claim that intervention in Indian Ocean, SCS, Ukraine, Syria has got anything to do with freedoms and human rights. They are the ones creating the problems by ‘challenging’ countries thousands of miles away from their continent.
Essentially all territorial water disputes until now followed the theme of “this land belongs to us therefore the adjacent waters belong to us”. The paradigm shift that China has brought to this equation is-this water belongs to us, therefore the land belongs to us, therefore more water belongs to us. ‘Land’ here is loosely taken to assume continental reef, and they have dumped sand on the reef and pulled the reefs out of the legal grey area and into firm footing (pun intended) and as a corollary, extended their territorial water and ADIZ. Japan did exactly that, but American propaganda will never tell that side of the story.
Cutting long story short, ‘Freedom of Navigation’ is to capitalism what ‘Freedom of Religion’ is to Christianity. The former is meant to extend western capitalist hegemony and the latter is meant to extend their Christian hegemony. These all terms are misnomers and have nothing to do with the freedom of people who don’t fall in the aforementioned coveted categories.
This ‘challenging’ business has got more to do with the other factors than legality. The framework for all these laws, (including nuclear, space, biological, patent laws, human rights etc) was laid when the US was a rising global power, and therefore the US weakened and subverted international forums and laws once they were the apex power to allow more manoeuvring space for the US in international affairs without being bogged down by laws. Now that US is slowly but steadily losing its pre-eminent position and the world is moving from a unipolar to a multipolar one, US is again strengthening these laws which it had earlier weakened for short term gains. This is being done to make it much more difficult for new powers to rise (for example compare the scale and intensity of so called human rights organizations delivering morally pious sermons to other nations, while these organizations were conveniently absent when the US invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, twice). All these ‘moral’ sea conflicts have to be looked at from that angle, otherwise what threat does the US face from the Indian ocean especially now given that it does not even depend on Gulf oil any more? Are our fish and prawns conspiring to bring down Obama’s government? Are our crabs and octopus trying to sink US aircraft carriers? This is simply arrogant show of force to stick it to our face and nothing else.
Consider the ranges and speeds of missiles these days- 200 miles is only a stone’s thrown away. And yet, a warship parked just 200 miles away from our shores is still technically considered to be in ‘international waters’, disregarding the fact that it can hit all our vital targets in a matter of a few seconds. Why is it that Obama felt it was extremely important to park his aircraft carrier near Mumbai all the three times he visited India? Just to uphold some international law? Seems unlikely!
It is nothing but Gun boat diplomacy, or in colloquial terms, blackmail by the hegemon.
There’s a very interesting talk by a Singaporean diplomat of Indian ethnicity about the arrogance of the US. It gives a nice insight into the nuances of American moves, filled with his personal experiences (including one where he was threatened personally by an American diplomat).