On Tuesday morning, after months of deliberation, the US Navy sailed a 9,200-tonne warship within 12 nautical miles of a Chinese-built artificial island in the South China Sea.
The USS Lassen – a guided-missile destroyer – approached Subi Reef, in the north of the disputed Spratly archipelago, and remained in the area for about five hours despite Chinese ships telling it to leave, both US and Chinese military sources said.
Subi is one of seven Chinese-controlled Spratly rocks or reefs which have undergone massive land-reclamation activity in recent years.
Once a natural atoll that fully submerged at high tide, today Subi is a ring-shaped island covering 3.9 million square metres and equipped with a helipad, half-completed airstrip and a four-storey building, according to images provided by the Asia Maritime Transparency initiative.
The US – which called Tuesday’s move a ‘freedom of navigation operation’ – has said such work is illegal and must stop. It fears China will use its new foothold in the South China Sea to enforce its territorial claims by military means, or in the case of other possible conflicts, to block important shipping routes.
Vietnam, the Philippines and Brunei all lay claim to parts of the Spratly archipelago (as does Taiwan, in an added complexity).
But China, which lies more than 1,000 kilometres north of the most northerly island, says the entire chain belongs to it, as does virtually all of the South China Sea, including the parts which Malaysia and Indonesia claim too.
Tuesday’s ‘freedom of navigation operation’ was Washington’s way of showing Beijing it does not recognise those claims and that construction on Subi hasn’t done anything to alter its status as a semi-submerged reef with no right to territorial waters.
“The whole point of freedom of navigation in international waters is that it’s international waters. You don’t need to consult with anybody. That’s the idea,” State Department spokesman John Kirby said as the operation got underway.
Reuters and the Wall Street journal quoted unnamed military officials as saying more such operations would happen in the near future.
The Chinese government has reacted by saying it has never limited freedom of navigation in the area but warned that more American operations could lead to “unavoidable incidents”. Speaking to CNN shortly after the “sail-by”, the Chinese ambassador to the US, Cui Tiankai, said the move was “absurd and even hypocritical” and “in total disregard of international law”.
Meanwhile in Beijing vice-foreign minister Zhang Yesui summoned US ambassador Max Baucus so as to warn him the sail-by was a “deliberate provocation” that was “extremely irresponsible”, according to Xinhua. The country’s official position, according to foreign ministry spokesperson Lu Kang, was one of “strong discontent”, a diplomatic expression of severe annoyance but not one that signalled imminent conflict.
Then again, in an opinion piece Xinhua also warned the US to “stop testing China’s bottom line in protecting sovereign rights”.
“The USS Lassen’s operation, carried out in the name of freedom of navigation, was nothing but a wilful and harmful game of brinkmanship mounted to flex US muscles at China’s doormat and reassert Washington’s dominant presence in the region – at the cost of injecting more uncertainty into regional stability,” Xinhua said.
Military newspapers were even more strident. “Cast iron facts show that time and again the United States recklessly uses force and starts wars, stirring things up where once there was stability, causing the bitterest of harm to those countries directly involved,” People’s Liberation Army Daily said in a front page commentary on Wednesday.
Yet interestingly some media tried to strike a soothing tone, telling Chinese citizens “to stay calm” and “trust in their politicians and armed forces”.
“The Pentagon is obviously provoking China. It is time to test the wisdom and determination of the Chinese people. If we feel disgraced and utter some furious words, it will only help the US achieve its goal of irritating us,” the Global times said.
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