Document Type


Publication Date

Winter 2018

Publication Citation

57 Washburn Law Journal 17 (2018)


The United States and China are at it again, as naval and aerial interceptions in and around the South China Sea become a matter of disturbing routine. At the heart of the dispute stands the lingering question of whether customary international law as reflected in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (“UNCLOS”) authorizes third States to engage in surveillance and military maneuvers in coastal States’ Exclusive Economic Zones (“EEZ”) without their consent. The answer lies in interpreting Article 58(1) of UNCLOS. This paper aims to respond to the calls put forward by States, scholars, and research institutes to promote a legal compromise between permissive and prohibitive interpretive approaches to UNCLOS Article 58(1). The traditional interpretation of the Article, and the EEZ Surveillance conundrum more broadly, has thus far been reviewed by scholars solely through the lenses of the age-old debate between Hugo Grotius and John Selden over Mare Liberum and Mare Clausum. In other words, existing scholarship treats the dispute as a binary zero-sum game. The model proposed in the Article recognizes the freedom of navigation premise as an analytical starting point, but nonetheless introduces, for reasons of maintaining minimum order, a set of restraints (“necessity,” “last resort,” and “proportionality”) to be internalized by third States in deciding whether to launch intelligence operations in another coastal State’s EEZ. To develop these standards, the paper examines the limits of a State’s right to spy under international law and the effects that advancements of surveillance technology have had over our evolutionary interpretation of UNCLOS. The paper’s nuanced approach thus treats the EEZ surveillance problem as a microcosm through which to examine meta-issues concerning the function intelligence plays in our public world order.