Early Tuesday morning, a U.S. warship sailed within 12 nautical miles of one of China’s claimed islands in the disputed South China Sea. Over the past year, regional tensions have increased as China has undertaken a bold land reclamation project to expand the size of its possessions in the region which has seen small outcroppings of rock transformed into large habitable islands, one large enough to now accommodate a 3,000 meter long airstrip. Beijing has stated that its actions are to make its possessions suitable to allowing for the facilitation of search-and-rescue missions and other humanitarian reasons in an area that is regularly prone to weather hostile to mariners.
Regional countries such as Vietnam and the Philippines view China as doing nothing more than expanding its existing possessions and militarizing them. This action by the U.S. is undoubtedly meant to serve as a message that Washington does not recognize Beijing’s land claims and that the concept of freedom of the seas must be maintained. It waits to be seen what the response from Beijing will be though if anything, China will not be pleased.
U.S. Sailing in the South China Sea
On Monday it was reported in various outlets that the USS Lassen, an Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer planned to sail within 12 nautical miles of Subi and Mischief Reefs over the next 24 hours. As planned, the USS Lassen did sail within 24 hours on Tuesday morning. This follows months of deliberation in Washington over pursuing such a course of action. It was originally believed that the USS Lassen would be accompanied by a P-8A Poseidon surveillance plane and possibly P-3 Orion surveillance plane though this does not seem to have occurred. While the U.S. has conducted regular surveillance around the disputed South China Sea in the past, this move represents Washington’s most serious physical challenge yet to Beijing on this issue.
Both Subi and Mischief Reefs are found in the North East of the Spratly archipelago close to the Philippines. It is believed that if land reclamation activities continue at Subi Reef, it will eventually be able of accommodating a 3,000 meter long airstrip similar to that being constructed at Fiery Cross Reef. The same holds true for Mischief Reef which is believed will eventually also accommodate a large naval base for the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). Tuesday morning saw the USS Lassen only sail within the waters of Subi Reef though.
This move by the U.S. comes in the wake of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s first official state visit to the U.S. earlier this month. Furthermore, it comes just weeks ahead of a series of Asia-Pacific summits U.S. President Barack Obama and Xi are expected to attend in the latter half of November. Washington it appears kept Beijing in the dark about this operation though U.S. plans for such a move had been widely reported. State Department spokesman John Kirby said at anews conference folowing the announcement of the operation, “You don’t need to consult with any nation when you are exercising the right of freedom of navigation in international waters.” Meanwhile U.S. officials have labeled the operation as a “freedom of navigation” exercise.
So far Beijing’s response has been somewhat restrained. According to a statement on the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s 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.”
The spokesperson of the Chinese Embassy in Washington, Zhu Haiquan said in a statement Monday night, “Freedom of navigation and overflight should not be used as excuse to flex muscle and undermine other countries’ sovereignty and security.” He added “We urge the United States to refrain from saying or doing anything provocative and act responsibly in maintaining regional peace and stability.”
Reason for U.S. Action
In May, the USS Fort Worth, a Littoral Combat Ship was tailed by a PLAN frigate in the region though far away from any disputed island. In July, a U.S navy Poseidon carrying U.S. Pacific Fleet Commander Admiral Scott Swift flew over the disputed region in a move that angered Beijing though which was entirely legal under international law. Later in August, a five ship flotilla of the PLAN sailed within U.S. territorial waters off of the Aleutian Islands. Washington at the time did not criticize Beijing for the move as the PLAN ships were operating within accepted international maritime law.
Beijing though has not shown the same passive attitude to such activities that Washington has. Prior to this sailing, the U.S. had been mulling such a move which it argued would and should not be construed as provocative. Early this month, China’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying warned against any move by the U.S. in its claimed territorial waters. She stated at a regular news briefing, “We [China] will never allow any country to violate China’s territorial waters and airspace in the Spratly Islands, in the name of protecting freedom of navigation and overflight”. She added “We urge the related parties not to take any provocative actions, and genuinely take a responsible stance on regional peace and stability”.
Washington maintains that under international law, the islands claimed and garrisoned by China do not have corresponding territorial waters. This is due to the fact that they are artificial islands built on previously submerged reefs which according to the United Nations Convention on the Law of Sea (UNLOS), are not entitled to accompanying territorial seas or Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs).
Under UNCLOS, Washington is correct about the status of China’s possessions in the South China Sea. While Washington is right stating that this planned maneuver is legal under international law, one can argue that Beijing does have the right to view such an activity as provocative. Arguably, U.S. warships can transit the region without travelling within 12 nautical miles of the various claimed possessions. On the other hand, this move by the U.S. is meant to send a stern message to China.
When PLAN warships came within 12 nautical miles of U.S. territory in the Aleutian Islands, Washington did not strike an aggressive chord as the ships were operating within the confines of international law. It was widely believed that such a stance would create a situation where reciprocity would come into play; the U.S. will not vent over this essentially unnecessary PLAN incursion and in so much, Beijing should have no reason to do so should the U.S. do the same. Beijing though has repeatedly warned over such a move while concurrently claiming that its activities in the region are primarily for humanitarian purposes.
U.S. officials have said this is only the first of similar operations that will occur in the future. While Beijing has responded publicly calmly to Tuesday mornings operation, how will it in the future? Future sailings by U.S. warships might be closely trailed by PLAN warships and aircraft, and or vessels belonging to one of the various departments of their State Oceanic Administration. Beijing’s responses in the past have been quite varied. At the least, it stands to reason warships in the future might be closely monitored by a PLAN warship such as the USS Fort Worth was earlier this year or be met by provocative actions akin to those experienced by the guided missile cruiser USS Cowpens in 2013 which was forced to take evasive maneuvers in response to a near collision by a PLAN amphibious ship.
The sailing of the USS Lassen is in some ways necessary. China cannot justify its actions in the South China Sea without accepting the principle of “innocent passage” by the USS Lassen just as Washington did earlier this year regarding the actions of the PLAN. Repeatedly, Beijing has argued that such a move by the U.S. would be viewed as a provocative action in violation of international law such as UNCLOS but has shown its selective interpretation of said law.
While the immediate fallout from this operation has been muted in Beijing, the same should not be expected in future, similar operations by the U.S. navy. Undoubtedly, the state-owned press is working overtime in China to ensure a positive spin on this event which Beijing most certainly does not want to see repeated.