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U.S. Navy Sails Calmly through Waters Claimed by China

A file photo of the USS Lassen, a guided-missile destroyer. The US navy sailed the vessel within 12 nautical miles of the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea as part of a series of ‘freedom of navigation’ exercises. Photograph: John Hageman/US navy via The New York Times

 The USS Lassen, a guided-missile destroyer. Photograph: John Hageman/U.S. navy via The New York Times

Tuesday’s voyage of the guided-missile naval destroyer USS Lassen through waters claimed by China in the South China Sea had the potential to escalate an already tense situation.  Despite being perfectly legal— international maritime law allows “innocent passage” of warships through territorial seas without notification—Beijing responded with the deployment of its own guided-missile destroyer, the Lanzhou, and its naval patrol ship Taizhou to issue warnings and shadow the U.S. destroyer.  Fortunately, cool heads prevailed, and the American destroyer sailed without incident within the 12-nautical-mile territorial limit China has declared surrounding one of its artificial islands.  

The artificial islands, located in the hotly disputed Spratly island chain, were previously submerged reefs during high tide, and turned into islands after significant dredging efforts by the Chinese.  Under the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), signed by China, nations have no claim to 12-nautical mile limits around man-made islands built on previously submerged reefs.  The Spratly island territory is disputed among Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam—all of which, except Brunei, occupy some of the maritime features.  

Tuesday’s mission by the U.S. Navy was ostensibly a routine exercise in freedom of navigation.  White House spokesman Josh Earnest referred to “billions of dollars of commerce that float through that region of the world,” adding, “Ensuring that free flow of commerce … is critical to the global economy.”

Yet while the naval maneuver was an exercise in freedom of navigation, it was also understood in many quarters to be a direct challenge to Beijing’s claims of sovereignty, following last month’s declaration by Beijing that it would “never allow any country” to violate its territorial waters and airspace in the Spratlys.  The U.S. mission had been expected, following Washington’s discussion of its proposal with other claimants to the waters.  

Not only was Tuesday’s mission widely foreshadowed, but it followed similar actions by the U.S. to counter Beijing’s claims to the waters and air of the East and South China Seas.  Back in May, a U.S. P8-A Poseidon surveillance aircraft flew near the artificial islands (but outside the 12-mile limit) with a television crew aboard from CNN.  And in 2013, two U.S. B-52 bombers flew through an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the East China Sea—newly-established by China to cement its claims over territory contested with Japan.  The last time the U.S. challenged a 12-mile limit claimed by China was in 2012, also in the Spratlys.

As in the past, the reaction by Beijing to the latest challenge to its claims of sovereignty  was swift and pronounced, but largely targeted to a domestic audience. Lu Kang, a spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, said the U.S. destroyer had “illegally entered” the waters near the islands “without receiving permission from the Chinese government.”  The state news agency, Xinhua, issued a warning, “Decision-makers in Washington need to be reminded that China has little room for compromise when it comes to matters regarding its sovereignty, and it will take whatever means at whatever cost to safeguard its sovereign interests.” The Chinese Embassy in Washington had earlier warned the United States should “refrain from saying or doing anything provocative and act responsibly in maintaining regional peace and stability,” arguing, “Freedom of navigation and overflight should not be used as excuse to flex muscle and undermine other countries’ sovereignty and security.”  

These comments and others, along with the shadowing of the U.S. destroyer, have clearly illuminated Beijing’s stance concerning the artificial islands. Beijing considers these new islands as Chinese territory de facto and will oppose all efforts to challenge that authority.  So far that opposition has been one of rhetoric to please the home crowd, and given the inefficiencies of the Chinese navy, should remain so as long as the U.S. maintains its strategic pivot to Asia, where 60% of the U.S. Navy’s assets are expected to be deployed by 2020.

Besides, any military action by China would be premature, given that its own military experts reckon their navy has another 30 years to go before being able to match the efficiency of the U.S. Navy.  And although the Pentagon figures China has more than 300 warships, submarines, amphibious ships and patrol boats compared to 200 among Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam, the combined forces of the U.S. and its regional allies could easily neutralize any and all of its military bases in the South China Sea should push come to shove.

This past week’s freedom of navigation exercise went a long way in reassuring Washington’s allies in the region, and did not escalate due to Beijing being fully cognizant of the risks of a military response.  The sail-by exercise by the U.S. should be thought of as tantamount to a neighborhood foot patrol by police—not as a SWAT team crackdown like some Chinese netizens would seem to think.  Should the exercises continue, as expected in the coming weeks, Washington will again need careful planning and timing, coalition-building and advanced warnings (while maintaining a low-key approach), for its actions not to raise any geopolitical alarms.

Perhaps over time, these freedom of navigation exercises will become as newsworthy as the barely mentioned news of five Chinese naval vessels penetrating the 12-mile limit of the U.S.-owned Aleutian Islands off Alaska last month, during a visit by President Barack Obama.



Gary Sands

Gary Sands is a Senior Analyst at Wikistrat, a crowdsourced consultancy, and a Director at Highway West Capital Advisors, a venture capital, project finance and political risk advisory. He has contributed a number of op-eds for Forbes, U.S. News and World Report, Newsweek, Washington Times, The Diplomat, The National Interest, International Policy Digest, Asia Times, EurasiaNet, Eurasia Review, Indo-Pacific Review, the South China Morning Post, and the Global Times. He was previously employed in lending and advisory roles at Shell Capital, ABB Structured Finance, and the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation. He earned his Masters of Business Administration in International Business from the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. and a Bachelor of Science in Finance at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, Connecticut. He spent six years in Shanghai from 2006-2012, four years in Rio de Janeiro, and is currently based in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Twitter@ForeignDevil666