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.
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