The attitude of Beijing has quickly turned from passive to outright angry since a U.S. warship, the USS Lassen sailed within 12 nautical miles of Subi Reef, a Chinese claimed artificial island in the South China Sea Tuesday morning. Beijing’s criticism of the move is increasingly being echoed in the country’s media and by its citizens. On Tuesday the Chinese government summoned the U.S. Ambassador to express its displeasure and has repeatedly warned of the consequences if the U.S. mounts similar operations in the future which Washington has already said it will do. In some ways Beijing’s criticisms are justified; the sailing of the USS Lassen while under the guise of innocent passage, was most likely meant to agitate China. On the other hand, Beijing is once again feigning outrage while fully showing its hypocrisy on international law and what constitutes a provocative action.
The U.S. Operation
After months of deliberations in Washington, it was decided that a U.S. warship would sail within 12 nautical miles of one of China’s claimed possessions in the South China Sea. It was planned that such an operation would send a stern message that Washington does not recognize Beijing’s land claims and that the concept of freedom of the seas must be maintained. On Monday it was announced that such an operation would take place within 24 hours and it did Tuesday morning as the USS Lassen, an Arleigh Burke-class guided missile sailed by Subi Reef.
According to China’s Ministry of National Defense (MND), the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) guided missile destroyer Lanzhou and the patrol ship Taizhou were dispatched to send warnings to the USS Lassen. Reuters reports that according to a U.S. defense official, the USS Lassen also went within 12 nautical miles of territories claimed by Vietnam and the Philippines. This same official confirms that PLAN ships did trail the USS Lassen at a safe distance and that during its 72 mile passage, no incidents were reported.
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The New York Times reported Tuesday evening quoting unnamed administration officials that the White House issued instructions to keep quiet publicly about the operation. Despite the media being made aware Monday that a U.S. ship would be conducting such an operation, the White House apparently ordered officials against formal announcements or news releases alerting the media to the actual passage of the USS Lassen and the specifics of its operation.
Initially, Beijing’s response was somewhat restrained. According to a statement on the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s (FMA) website, Foreign Minister Wang Yi said his government was still trying to verify media reports about the sailing of the USS Lassen. In his statement Wang said “If true, we advise the U.S. to think carefully before acting, not to take reckless action and not to make trouble out of nothing.” This calm attitude though quickly changed and Beijing’s tone turned outright furious.
Spokesman for the MND, Senior Colonel Yang Yujun said on Tuesday that his office expresses “resolute opposition” to the U.S. action. Speaking later in the day for the FMA was spokesman Lu Kang who said that the USS Lassen “illegally entered waters” and that the U.S. operation “put the personnel and facilities on the islands and reefs at risk” though the FMA has failed to elaborate why. He added “[China] strongly urges the American side to take China’s solemn representations seriously, put right mistakes, refrain from any dangerous or provocative actions detrimental to China’s sovereignty and security interests”.
Lu also stated regarding potential responses by China, “the Chinese side will not swallow silently any damage or threat to its sovereign rights and legitimate security interests. I would like to point out that the Chinese side is willing to remove differences through peaceful means, but when it has to react, it will decide when and how to react according to its will and need.” While this can be construed as implying Beijing is open to a military option if such an operation occurs in the future, when questioned on that specifically, Lu only said “I have no comment on a hypothetical question.” Colonel Yang from the MND echoed a similar sentiment saying the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is fully committed to safeguarding China’s national sovereignty and security, and will take whatever action is necessary to safeguard its security.
Later on Tuesday, the FMA summoned U.S. Ambassador Max Baucus who eventually met with Executive Vice Minister Zhang Yesui. Ambassadors are routinely summoned worldwide by host governments for issues of any nature that require a public response and this is no different. This meeting though with Baucus has yet to be confirmed by the U.S. State Department as spokesman John Kirby said at a daily press briefing Tuesday, “we don’t confirm the details of diplomatic conversations.”
PLAN spokesperson Liang Yang warned that future U.S. operations of the same type may “trigger eventualities.” Meanwhile PLAN Rear Admiral Yang Yi rejected Washington’s assertion that the operation was meant to ensure freedom of navigation and was instead directed at China. Telling China Military Online, he said “We shall never stop our pace, nor shall we submit to humiliation. If the U.S succeeds through this attempt, the South China Sea will be caught in a vicious cycle”.
In an interview with CNN, Cui Tiankai, China’s Ambassador to the U.S. said “I think what the United States is doing is a very serious provocation politically and militarily” and added that it was “a clear attempt to escalate the situation and to militarize the region”. Cui criticized the U.S. for taking an “absurd and even hypocritical position” in asking others (China) not to militarize the South China Sea while frequently sending warships there. Let the facts be stated, 2012 was the last time the U.S. mounted a similar operation in the region.
Cui added that in light of this event, China should take steps to increase its defenses in the South China Sea saying “We have to make sure we have sufficient means to safeguard our sovereignty there, to protect our lawful rights there, and … maintain peace and stability there, and nobody will have any more illusion that it could continue to provoke”. Currently China is in a far better position to defend its interests in the South China Sea than any other claimant state and in developing that capability, has itself threatened regional peace and security.
China’s state-owned Xinhua news quickly released a commentary on the U.S. operation calling it a “dangerous attempt to test China’s bottom line in protecting its sovereign rights.” It added “The U.S. move is actually a blatant abuse of the freedom of navigation rights in violation of the international law as it threatens China’s sovereignty and security interests.” A swipe was taken at U.S. President Barack Obama when the commentary referred to his administration as “lame-duck”. This move by the U.S.in the commentary was considered a feeble attempt to reassure its allies at a time when the Asia Rebalance policy of Washington “falters due to financial constraints back home and distraction of crises in other parts of the world.”
In another Xinhua commentary, it was argued that “freedom of navigation and overflight has never been jeopardized [in the South China Sea]” and that “China does not seek to militarize the Nansha Islands (China’s name for the Spratly Islands)” and that the U.S. had conducted “aggressive behavior..highly irresponsible and dangerous” . The U.S. was also deemed biased against China despite the USS Lassen sailing within 12 nautical miles of islands “illegally occupied” by Vietnam and the Philippines in what was called a “gimmick”.
Regional powers were quick to comment on the U.S. operation and were supportive of it. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was quoted by The Japan Times on Tuesday saying “In order to protect the free, open and peaceful sea, we will cooperate with the international community, including the United States, our ally”. Japan is not a disputing party in the South China Sea though has its own disputes with China and its relations with disputing parties, the Philippines and Vietnam are growing.
Philippine President Benigno Aquino III speaking to foreign correspondents at a forum on Tuesday said he welcomed the U.S. operation calling it a “balance of power”. He said “Everybody seems to be guaranteeing freedom of navigation, so I see no issue as to this US naval ship traversing under international law in waters that should be free to be travelled upon by any non-belligerent country”. The Philippines are directly involved in the South China Sea dispute and are currently pursuing legal action against China which Washington is supportive of.
Meanwhile Australian Defense Minister Marise Payne told the Special Broadcasting Service in a statement Wednesday that all countries have a right to freedom of navigation and freedom of overflight based on international law, including in the South China Sea. Payne though added that Australia would not take part in future operations of the same kind. This assertion though is countered by a report in The Wall Street Journal that Australian defense planners are looking at the possibility of conducting a similar operation. According to one official in Australia’s military familiar with operational planning “Australia has been looking at options.”
South Korea was more subtle in its comments. A senior South Korean presidential official was quoted Wednesday by Yonhap News Agency “South Korea has been strongly calling for restraint of any action that affects peace and stability in the region.” South Korea though a close U.S. ally is cautious not to agitate China as stability in North Korea is somewhat highly dependent on Beijing.
Attempts to Diffuse the Situation
Admiral Harry Harris, Commander, U.S. Pacific Command according to Japan’s NHK is reportedly set to visit Beijing in early November for talks with PLA officials in a visit that was planned beforehand. Activities aimed at increasing military-to-military exchanges and cooperative activity will be discussed though for certain, Tuesday’s operation will be highly discussed. According to Zha Xiaogang, a research fellow at the Shanghai Institute for International Studies, Harris’s visit will also serve to restate the U.S. stance, rejecting China’s territorial claims in a statement made to the Global Times Wednesday.
In fact on Monday it was announced that an agreement was reached between PLA and U.S. military officials in an attempt to prevent escalatory situations that pilots from both countries will refrain from “the use of uncivil language or unfriendly physical gestures.” Furthermore this operation comes on the heels of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s first official visit to the U.S.
The U.S. has already signaled its intent to repeat similar operations in the future. Undoubtedly the stakes will go up the next time such a move occurs. On Tuesday, the USS Lassen was only trailed by a PLAN destroyer and patrol ship. Future encounters between the PLAN and the U.S. navy might not be as calm. It is entirely possible that PLAN warships might illuminate U.S. ships with their fire control radars, illuminating the U.S. ship in a missile lock as they have done in the past with ships from the Japanese Maritime Self Defense Forces (JMSDF). Or Chinese ships can interfere with the operations of the U.S. ship as was seen in incidents with the USNS Impeccable or USS Cowpens.
While the U.S. is certainly provoking China with this type of operation, it does call into question Beijing’s motives. Repeatedly Beijing has claimed that its construction projects in the South China Sea are not primarily of a military nature but rather for humanitarian purposes. Understandably, China wants to protect its possessions and views a U.S. warship sailing within 12 nautical miles of its possession as provocative. One must understand though that when a five-ship PLAN flotilla sailed within 12 nautical miles of the U.S. Aleutian Islands, Washington did not launch a vocal protest.
If China is not truly militarizing the South China Sea, then why does it protest to such an operation? As of late China seems to be without friends in the region on issues regarding this dispute. Naturally Beijing has to lash out at Washington but offering ambiguous threats of military options should such operations occur in the future are overly aggressive and unnecessary. The U.S. does not seek a fight with China and in all honesty, Washington would rather see a continuation of the existing status quo. It must be said though the U.S. will continue to operate in the South China Sea in a manner respective of international law. Can the same be said of China?