A U.S. Navy warship sailed through waters claimed by China in the disputed South China Sea and was “shadowed and warned,” as territorial tensions escalated ahead of a series of international summits next month where the leaders of the two countries will cross paths.
The USS Lassen passed within 12-nautical miles of Subi Reef in the Spratly island chain, according to a U.S. defense official who spoke on the condition of anonymity. U.S. officials have repeatedly said they’ll act to protect freedom of navigation in the area. By passing so close to the man-made island, the U.S. is showing it doesn’t recognize that the feature qualifies for a 12-nautical mile territorial zone under international law.
The patrol marks the most direct attempt by the U.S. to challenge China over its behavior in one of the world’s busiest waterways. China, which claims more than 80 percent of the South China Sea, has stepped up its island building in the past year and is installing runways in the area capable of landing military aircraft.
The patrol could further strain U.S. ties with China ahead of multilateral meetings to be attended by President Barack Obama and his counterpart, Xi Jinping, including the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in the Philippine capital next month.
So far, China has mostly relied on the coast guard to assert its claims to the South China Sea, although it has sent destroyers into the area. Its Foreign Ministry issued a strongly-worded statement saying the USS Lassen had “illegally” entered Chinese waters and that “relevant Chinese departments monitored, shadowed and warned the U.S. ship”
“What the U.S. is doing now will only damage the stability in the South China Sea, and send the wrong message to neighboring nations such as the Philippines and encourage them to take some risky behavior,” said Xu Liping, a professor of Southeast Asian studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a government-linked institute.
China bases its claims to most of the sea, a conduit for trade and energy supplies between Europe and Asia, on a so-called nine-dash line for which it won’t give precise coordinates. It had warned any U.S. move inside the 12-mile zones would increase “the danger of miscalculation” and make it harder to resolve disputes over the sea, parts of which are also claimed by the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan.
“The behavior of the U.S. warship threatened China’s sovereignty and national interest, endangered the safety of the islands staff and facilities, and harmed regional peace and stability,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said in a statement on the ministry’s website. “The Chinese side expressed strong discontent and firm opposition.”
Chinese aerospace companies and shipbuilders rallied on news of the patrol. Shipbuilder China CSSC Holdings Ltd. climbed 4.4 percent in Shanghai, while Aerospace Communications Holding Group Co. surged 10.2 percent.
The U.S. had previously flown Poseidon surveillance aircraft in the area, though not within the 12-mile zones set by China. The U.S. defense official characterized the Navy patrol as part of routine operations in accordance with international law. Defense Department spokesman Bill Urban said he was not able to comment on the specifics of the patrol.
“There are billions of dollars of dollars of commerce that flow through that region of the world every year,” said White House spokesman Josh Earnest. “Ensuring the free flow of this commerce and that freedom of navigation of those vessels is protected is critically important to the global economy.”
China has several options, aside from directly challenging U.S. ships with its Navy or coast guard. It could declare an Air Defense Identification Zone over the South China Sea, or speed up the militarization of the area by deploying extra forces, including combat aircraft, to the islands, said Malcolm Davis, an assistant professor in China-Western relations at Bond University on Australia’s Gold Coast.
“The ball would then be back in the U.S.’s court as to how it responded,” said Davis. “A Chinese attempt to enforce an ADIZ over the South China Sea would increase tensions with its neighbors, most notably Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia, and they would place increasing pressure on Washington not to back down.”
East China Sea
China’s foreign ministry said in May it reserves the right to establish an air zone over the South China Sea. In November 2013 it set up a zone covering islands in the East China Sea also claimed by Japan, prompting the U.S. to fly B-52 bombers into the area to challenge its enforcement.
China’s South China Sea reclamation program has created 2,900 acres in the Spratlys as of June, according to the Pentagon. China contends its building of airstrips and other facilities is mostly for civilian purposes.
Philippine President Benigno Aquino said he had no objection to U.S. ships sailing near the disputed territory as long as the vessels adhere to international law and have no hostile intentions.
The tensions impact on Japan’s security, Defense Minister Gen Nakatani said. “Our country believes it is important for the international community to work together to protect open, free and peaceful seas,” he said, declining to comment on the specific U.S. operation. Japan is not a claimant in the South China Sea.
“Large-scale land reclamation in the South China Sea and the building of bases changes the status quo and raises tensions,” he told reporters Tuesday. “Such one-sided actions are a common concern of international society.”