Sources: Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, US Energy Information Administration, Global Security, Middlebury College. SCMP Graphic: Kaliz Lee, Simon Scarr
The Chinese authorities sent a warning to a US Navy ship on Tuesday morning after it “illegally” entered waters near a disputed group of hundreds of reefs, islets, atolls and islands in the South China Sea, the Foreign Ministry said.
The movement of the USS Lassen, a guided missile destroyer, was closely monitored as it moved close to an artificial island built by China inside what Beijing claims as a 12-nautical mile (22km) territorial limit around Subi Reef in the Spratly Islands archipelago, the ministry added.
“China strongly urges the US side to conscientiously handle China’s serious representations, immediately correct its mistake and not take any dangerous or provocative acts that threaten China’s sovereignty and security interests," the ministry said in a statement on its website.
The ministry quoted Foreign Minister Wang Yi as saying on Tuesday on the sidelines of a seminar in Beijing: “We advise the US to think again and before acting – not act blindly or make trouble out of nothing.”
Dredgers fill the lagoon of Mischief Reef in the Spratly archipelago, in this image shot by the US Navy on May 15 this year. The reclamation is seen by the US and other nations as part of Chinese efforts to bolster sovereignty claims. Photo: Reuters
The ship’s arrival had been a long-anticipated challenge to what the Obama administration considers Beijing’s “excessive claim” of sovereignty in those waters, a US defence official said.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the White House approved the movement by the USS Lassen and that the patrol was completed without incident.
Nations including the Philppines, Vietnam and Brunei also lay rival claims to disputed areas in the South China Sea.
The warship had stayed in the disputed area for several hours in what would be the start of a series of challenges to China’s territorial claims in one of the world’s busiest sea lanes, said a second US official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity.
The official added the patrol also included waters around Mischief Reef.
A Pentagon spokesman, Navy Commander Bill Urban, declined to comment.
Photo: CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative/DigitalGlobe via AFP
A significant expansion has also been recorded at a sandbank on West London Reef.
A significant expansion has also been recorded at a sandbank on West London Reef.
According to Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, the sandbank has been expanded from 12,595 square metres to 77,596 square metres, with breakwaters constructed on the south of the landmass and various vessels have been seen moored offshore.
Earlier the second official said that the ship was likely to have been accompanied by a US Navy P-8A surveillance plane and possibly a P-3 surveillance plane, which have both been conducting regular missions in the region.
Additional patrols would follow in the coming weeks and could also be conducted around reefs and features that Vietnam and the Philippines have built up in the Spratlys, the official said.
This is something that will be a regular occurrence, not a one-off event,” the second official said. “It’s not something that’s unique to China.”
White House spokesman Josh Earnest referred questions on any specific operations to the Pentagon, but said the US had made clear to China the importance of a 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 told a news briefing.
Asked for comment about the US move, a spokesman at the Chinese embassy in Washington, Zhu Haiquan, said China respected freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.
“Freedom of navigation and overflight should not be used as excuse to flex muscle and undermine other countries’ sovereignty and security,” he said.
“We urge the United States to refrain from saying or doing anything provocative and act responsibly in maintaining regional peace and stability.”
The state-run news Xinhua published a commentary strongly criticizing the US move.
“Travelling thousands of miles to show off their force and make a mess, the Americans have become the troublemaker of the West Pacific. The international community raised eyebrows and the Chinese people are outraged," the commentary said.
“Last month President Obama stated his belief that the two side were capable to control disparities and agreed to interact positively with China on issues including the South China Sea.
“No sooner had the statement gone than warships are sent to ‘patrol’ closely to the waters around our islands. Their capricious manner is shocking. Such provocative behavior is irresponsible to the peace and stability of the South China Sea region and is against international principles and their own words.”
The Lassen had earlier been reported to be nearing Subi and Mischief reefs, features that were submerged at high tide before China began a massive dredging project to turn them into islands in 2014.
Reclamation work on Subi Reef is seen in this photo taken from a nearby island five months ago. Photo: Reuters
The Obama administration has long said it will exercise a right to freedom of navigation in any international waters, including in the South China Sea.
The point of sailing a US ship within 12 nautical miles of any of the artificial islands created by China would be to demonstrate the US assertion that they are not sovereign Chinese territory.
“Make no mistake, the United States will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows, as we do around the world, and the South China Sea is not and will not be an exception,” US Defence Secretary Ash Carter said on October 13.
“We’ll do that at times and places of our choosing,” Carter said.
“And there’s no exception to that, whether it’s the Arctic or the sea lanes that fuel international commerce widely around the world, or the South China Sea.”
State Department spokesman John Kirby said on Monday the US would not be required to consult with other nations if it decided to conduct freedom of navigation operations in international waters anywhere on the globe.
“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,” Kirby said.
He referred questions about specific Navy ship movements to the Pentagon.
China’s assertive behaviour in the South China Sea has become an increasingly sore point in relations with the United States, even as President Barack Obama and China’s President Xi Jinping have sought to deepen cooperation in other areas, such as climate change.
China claims virtually all of the South China Sea.
The Philippines and other countries that have territorial disputes with China in the busy sea have been particularly concerned by China’s recent land reclamation projects that have turned a number of previously submerged reefs in the Spratly archipelago into artificial islands with runways and wharves.
Admiral Harry Harris Jnr, commander of the US Pacific Command, has said the South China Sea is no more China’s than the Gulf of Mexico is Mexico’s.
- WSJ : A Pivotal Moment in the South China Sea
- CNN : China says it warned and tracked U.S. warship in South China Sea
- The Guardian : South China Sea: tensions and territorial claims – the Guardian briefing / US navy warship defies Beijing to sail past South China Sea islands
- The Diplomat : After Months of Waiting, US Finally Begins Freedom of Navigation Patrols Near China's Man-Made Islands
- BBC : Q&A: South China Sea dispute
- Quartz : The US just challenged China in the South China Sea and… nothing happened
- SCMP : Staking its claim: Beijing building third airstrip 3,000 metres long in contested South China Sea / Beijing on alert for U.S. Navy 'incursion' near artificial islands in South China Sea / China 'offers joint drills with Asean in South China Sea to check US plan to send warships near Spratly Islands
- GeoGarage blog : South China Sea : freedom of navigation / Law of the Sea mechanisms: examining UNCLOS Maritime Zones