In the next 24 hours a US Navy destroyer is set to pass within 12 miles of the much disputed territorial area that China claims around artificial islands it has controversially built in the South China Sea.
Today, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi responded by warning in no uncertain terms that the U.S. not “make trouble out of nothing” in the South China Sea.
“We are checking out the matter,” Wang remarked
“If it is true, we advise the U.S. to think twice before it acts,” he said, urging the U.S. to “Not act in an imprudent way and not make trouble out of nothing.”
Speaking anonymously to Reuters, a U.S. defense official said that the USS Lassen was approaching Subi and Mischief reefs in the Spratly archipelago, and would be in the area for several hours. The ship is likely to be accompanied by reconnaissance planes that have been conducting surveillance work in the region recently.
The mission, which has been approved by U.S. President Barack Obama, represents the most serious U.S. challenge yet to the 12-nautical-mile territorial limit China claims around the islands. The move is sure to be seen as an open challenge to China, with Beijing warning only last month that it would “never allow any country” to violate its territorial waters and airspace in the Spratlys.
The Chinese Embassy in Washington has said that the concept of freedom of navigation should not be used as an excuse for the United States to flex its military might and it should “refrain from saying or doing anything provocative and act responsibly in maintaining regional peace and stability.”
The patrol is expected to be just the first of many to follow in the coming weeks and patrols may also be conducted around areas that both Vietnam and the Philippines have built up in the South China Sea.
“This is something that will be a regular occurrence, not a one-off event,” said the U.S. defense official. “It’s not something that’s unique to China.”
The United States last sailed within the 12 mile limit of Chinese-claimed territory in the Spratlys in 2012, two years before China began a massive dredging project to turn previously submerged reefs into islands.
U.S. Congressman Randy Forbes, chairman of the House Armed Services Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee and chairman of the congressional China Caucus, praised the decision to go ahead with the patrols.
“The passage of U.S. vessels within 12 nautical miles of China’s man-made features in the South China Sea is a necessary and overdue response to China’s destabilizing behavior in the region,” Forbes said.
U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby also legitimized the move on Monday, “It’s one of the reasons you have a Navy. To be able to exert influence and defend freedom of navigation on international waters.”
Kirby said one country doesn’t need to consult with another when exercising “the right of freedom of navigation in international waters.”
He went on, “The whole point of freedom of navigation in international waters is that it’s international waters and you don’t need to consult with anybody to do that. That’s the idea.”
On the other hand, Chinese Embassy spokesperson in Washington, Zhu Haiquan, explained his country’s perspective on the matter saying, “Freedom of navigation and overflight should not be used as excuse to flex muscle and undermine other countries’ sovereignty and security.”
Haiquan highlighted the potentially incendiary nature of the mission and warned, “We urge the United States to refrain from saying or doing anything provocative and act responsibly in maintaining regional peace and stability,”
China claims most of the South China Sea, one of the world’s busiest sea lanes where an incredible $5 trillion of world trade passes through each year. White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the United States has previously made clear to China the importance of free flow of commerce in the South China Sea.
“There are billions of dollars of commerce that float through that region of the world,” Earnest said. “Ensuring that free flow of commerce … is critical to the global economy.”
The region is the subject of numerous rival and complex territorial claims, with China, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam disputing sovereignty of several island chains and nearby waters. With regards to China’s own claims and island building activities, the United States argues that under international law, building up artificial islands on submerged reefs does not entitle a country to claim a territorial limit.
This story is of course just the latest chapter in a series of increasingly tense and threatening military exchanges between the world’s two most powerful countries as they both seek to exert and protect their respective spheres of influence.
Even before Xi Jinping told U.S. officials last month on his state visit that China had “no intention to militarize” the islands, satellite photographs had emerged showing the construction of three military-length airstrips by China in the Spratlys, including one each on Mischief and Subi reefs.
In May, CNN reported that the Chinese navy issued repeated warnings to “go away” to the crew of a U.S. P8-A Poseidon surveillance aircraft that flew near the artificial islands. In the same month, the USS Fort Worth encountered several Chinese warships during a patrol in the archipelago.
In early September, China sent navy vessels 12 miles from the Aleutian Islands off the coast of Alaska, saying this was consistent with “innocent passage” under international maritime law and they were just there as part of a routine drill following exercises with Russia. Obama just so happened to be visiting Alaska at the time.
A series of Asia-Pacific summits are expected to take place in the second half of November and will be attended by both President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping and it awaits to be seen what will be discussed with regards to the ever more important, complex and tumultuous situation in the South China Sea.
In a (written) Q&A session with Reuters earlier this month, Xi reaffirmed China’s commitment to its claims in the South China Sea, saying:
The islands and reefs in the South China Sea are Chinese territory since ancient times. They are left to us by our ancestors. The Chinese people will not allow anyone to infringe on China’s sovereignty and related rights and interests in the South China Sea. The actions China has taken in the South China Sea are legitimate reactions to safeguard its territorial sovereignty. Expansionism refers to laying claims to land outside one’s own territory. China has never done anything like that, so such doubts or accusations are unwarranted.
Of course, when they sail past China’s artificial islands in the South China Sea, U.S. sailors may have to be tied to the mast like Odysseus to keep them from frantically swimming to the land of vegetable gardens and cute female soldiers.
[UPDATE: Ships passed by. Nothing happened. No battleships sunk.]
By Daniel Paul