SOUTH CHINA SEA – The United States Navy has sent the guided-missile destroyer, USS Lassen, near China’s reclaimed islands in the disputed South China Sea on Tuesday, drawing an angry rebuke from Beijing, which said it warned and followed the American vessel.
The USS Lassen was the most significant US challenge yet to 12-nautical-mile territorial limits China asserts around the islands in the Spratly archipelago and could ratchet up tensions in one of the world’s busiest sea lanes.
One US defense official said the USS Lassen sailed within 12 nautical miles of Subi Reef. A second defense official said the mission, which lasted a few hours, also included Mischief Reef and would be the first in a series of freedom-of-navigation exercises aimed at testing China’s territorial claims.
China’s Foreign Ministry said the “relevant authorities” monitored, followed and warned the USS Lassen as it “illegally” entered waters near islands and reefs in the Spratlys without the Chinese government’s permission.
“China will resolutely respond to any country’s deliberate provocations. We will continue to closely monitor the relevant seas and airspace, and take all necessary steps in accordance with the need,” the ministry said in a statement that gave no details on precisely where the US ship sailed.
“China strongly urges the US side to conscientiously handle China’s serious representations, immediately correct its mistake and not take any dangerous or provocative acts that threaten China’s sovereignty and security interests,” it said.
The second US defense official said additional patrols would follow in the coming weeks and could also be conducted around features that Vietnam and the Philippines have built up in the Spratlys.
“This is something that will be a regular occurrence, not a one-off event,” said the official. “It’s not something that’s unique to China.”
White House spokesman Josh Earnest referred questions on any specific operations to the Pentagon but said the United States had made clear to China the importance of free flow of commerce in the South China Sea.
The United States had not conducted a patrol within 12 miles of the seven Chinese outposts since Beijing began building the reefs up at the end of 2013. The US Navy last went within 12 miles of Chinese-claimed territory in the Spratlys in 2012.
China claims most of the South China Sea, through which more than $5 trillion of world trade passes every year. Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines and Taiwan have rival claims.
Risk of escalation
The decision to go ahead with the patrol follows months of deliberation and risks upsetting already strained ties with China.
“By using a guided-missile destroyer, rather than smaller vessels … they are sending a strong message,” said Ian Storey, a South China Sea expert at Singapore’s Institute of South East Asian Studies.
“They have also said, significantly, that there will be more patrols – so it really now is up to China how it will respond.”
Some experts have said China would likely resist attempts to make such US actions routine. China’s navy could for example try to block or attempt to surround US vessels, they said, risking an escalation.
Euan Graham, director of the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute in Sydney, said while there was likely to be a strong vocal reaction from China, its military response could be muted.
The patrol could prompt China to do more to exert its sovereignty in the region through further reclamation’s and greater militarization, he added.
Aquino welcomes US move
The passage by a US destroyer in disputed waters of the South China Sea Tuesday helps restore a balance of power in the region, amid Beijing’s aggressive reclamation and construction in the area, Philippine President Benigno Aquino said, dpa reports.
“I think everybody would welcome a balance of power anywhere in the world,” Aquino said.
He said US naval patrols would serve as a reminder that “there are norms as to what freedom of navigation entails, and they intend to exercise so that there is no de facto changing of the reality on the ground.”
“The balance of power says that there is not just a single voice that must be adhered to, it has to be a plurality of voices when all parties are affected by changes of the realities on the ground,” he added.
Australia too backs US policy
Australia is not involved in US naval activity in the South China Sea, but strongly supports the US policy of conducting freedom of navigation operations, the defense minister, Marise Payne, said.
Payne said: “It is important to recognize that all states have a right under international law to freedom of navigation and freedom of overflight, including in the South China Sea,” she said. “Australia strongly supports these rights.”