Tension over China’s activities in the South China Sea just went up a notch, as the U.S. Navy has launched a direct military challenge to Beijing’s territorial claims in the area with naval maneuvers near two artificial islands built in disputed waters on Tuesday.
The USS Lassen, a guided-missile destroyer, sailed within 12 nautical miles of at least one of the land formations claimed by China in the disputed Spratly Islands chain on Tuesday, according to a U.S. defence official. “We are conducting routine operations in the South China Sea in accordance with international law,” the official stated. “US forces operate in the Asia-Pacific region on a daily basis, including in the South China Sea.” The official emphasized that these operations are “distinct from the question of sovereignty over these islands”.
Predictably, the navy patrol didn’t go down too well with the big wigs back in China: “The actions of the U.S. warship have threatened China’s sovereignty and security interests, jeopardized the safety of personnel and facilities on the reefs, and damaged regional peace and stability,” China’s Foreign Ministry wrote in a statement on its website. China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi chimed in with a separate statement, saying the “U.S. side [should] think twice, not … take rash moves and stir up troubles.” while the Chinese Embassy in Washington said the concept of freedom of navigation should not be used as excuse for muscle-flexing and that the USA should “refrain from saying or doing anything provocative and act responsibly in maintaining regional peace and stability”.
The U.S. has repeatedly stated it does not recognize Chinese claims to territorial waters around the artificial islands, while Beijing insists virtually all of the South China Sea belongs to it. “We have been clear that we take no position on competing territorial sovereignty claims to land features in the South China Sea,” the US defence official was quoted as saying. “We will fly, sail, and operate anywhere in the world that international law allows.” The official insisted that freedom of navigation operations, which are taking place worldwide, are “not directed at any specific country”.
While China’s Foreign Ministry said the USS Lassen “illegally” entered the waters around the islands and reefs in the Spratlys without the Chinese government’s permission, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea states that 12-nautical-mile limits cannot be set around man-made islands built on previously submerged reefs, meaning the U.S. warship was well within its rights to do what it did.