With reports that China was furious to find one of U.S. destroyers sailing close to disputed islands, political experts are weighing in whether or not Beijing has what it takes to respond to such U.S. “provocations” with military force.

China vs. U.S. South China Sea
Image source: Wikimedia Commons

It was reported earlier today that the USS Lassen sailed within 12 nautical miles of one of China’s claimed islands in the disputed South China Sea. Beijing called such actions to be damaging “peace and stability in the region.”

“These actions of the US warship are a threat to the sovereignty and security of China, and safety of people living on the islands; they damage peace and stability in the region. In this regard, the Chinese side expresses extreme dissatisfaction and strongly protests,” the statement posted on China’s Foreign Ministry website says, according to Interfax.

It is also suspected that the U.S. warship could have been accompanied by one or two U.S. Navy surveillance aircraft, which have conducted frequent reconnaissance flights in the area, according to an unnamed U.S. official, as reported by Reuters.

The U.S. Navy stated that additional patrols could take place in the coming weeks, which raises concerns whether China will be as restrained as it was today or whether it will be prepared to respond militarily.

Beijing: We are ready to respond to “provocations”

What particularly offended China was the fact that the USS Lassen destroyer was on the mission to pass by the Subi and Mischief reefs, which belong to the Spratly archipelago, which China considers its own sovereign territory.

Beijing was closely monitoring and tracking the movement of the U.S. warship when it “illegally” entered the area near the disputed islands, China’s Foreign Ministry said on Tuesday. The statement issued by the Foreign Ministry also said that the U.S. decided to sail into the “sovereign territory of China” despite “repeated warnings” from Beijing.

“China consistently respects and defends the freedom of navigation and flight of any country in accordance with international law. However, it firmly opposes any country harming [China’s] sovereignty and security under the pretext of freedom of navigation and flight,” the official statement said.

The Foreign Ministry also added that China will defend its sovereignty, security and rights in the maritime space. And the Chinese side is “ready to give an appropriate response to any country’s provocations,” according to the statement.

So from the words of official Beijing, China is indeed prepared to take military action as a response to U.S. “provocations,” which in this case is the U.S. warship sailing close to the disputed Spratly Islands.

The alarming incident comes weeks ahead of a number of Asia-Pacific summits scheduled in November, in which both Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Barack Obama are expected to attend. But with reports that the U.S. could be sending more of its patrols to the disputed area in the coming weeks, there is a high risk of escalating tensions between Washington and Beijing before the two leaders meet.

More U.S. warships are expected to sail in South China Sea soon

Admiral Harry Harris Jr., the top U.S. military commander in the Pacific, expressed his concern earlier this year that China could take advantage of the disputed islands to obstruct sea or air navigation.

But Washington has repeatedly said that it would send American ships into the waters of the disputed area to surround China’s artificial islands and show U.S. commitment to “freedom of navigation.”

“Make no mistake: The United States will fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows, as we do around the world, and the South China Sea is not and will not be an exception,” U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said in a speech just two weeks ago.

“The Subi and Mischief Reefs are low-tide elevations which no state can claim as territories. To deny Chinese illegitimate territorial claims, the U.S. Navy needed to physically challenge it. Otherwise, China establishes no-go zones in the high seas and hinders freedom of navigation,” said Tetsuo Kotani, a maritime security specialist at the Japan Institute of International Affairs, based in Tokyo.

If U.S. invades China’s interests, Chinese military will counter the American threat

There is still a chance that the incident will go down in history as an incident that merely made some noise in the media. But the problem around the disputed islands is not going to go away on its own.

Sooner or later, unresolved problems emerge. In the best-case scenario – the incident will be settled diplomatically between the two sides of the conflict. In the worst-case scenario – the U.S. will send more of its warships into the disputed area, which China claims its sovereign territory, and the Chinese might attempt to respond with force. One thing will lead to another, and we will face the World War 3 over some tiny islands in South China Sea.

China and the U.S. are currently standing at the dead end regarding securing strategic stability. While the two countries are committed to prevent any possible conflict between the two sides, neither Beijing nor Washington have developed a reasonable and sensible solution to achieve this. Thus, the rivalry goes on, and it has a high risk of spiraling into a military confrontation.

If Beijing already urges the Chinese military to be prepared for “counter measures” to respond to U.S. “provocations,” it hardly sounds promising. If China feels that the U.S. invades Chinese interests, the Chinese military will most likely use military force to stop the “American threat.”