China has accused the United States navy of “serious provocation” after USS Lassen sailed close to two artificial islands in the South China Sea, but the US contends it has freedom of navigation in the area.
The US has threatened further incursions into waters claimed by China after the naval manoeuvres prompted an angry rebuke from Beijing. China summoned the US ambassador to Beijing in protest and accused the US of a “serious provocation”.
The US chief of naval operations and his Chinese counterpart were set to hold a video teleconference on Thursday to discuss the incident.
US defence secretary Ash Carter warned this week that naval operations in the area would continue. “We will fly, sail and operate wherever international law permits,” he said during a congressional hearing in which lawmakers claimed the US risked losing credibility with its allies in the region if it did not act.
“There have been naval operations in that region in recent days and there will be more in the weeks and months to come,” Carter said.
He confirmed that the USS Lassen travelled within 22.2km of the disputed Spratly archipelago, which is at the heart of a controversial Chinese island-building campaign that has soured ties between Washington and Beijing. Chinese officials were not informed of Tuesday’s mission.
The direct military challenge to Beijing’s territorial claims prompted a furious reaction in Beijing. State television reported that the Chinese vice-foreign minister, Zhang Yesui, had branded the move “extremely irresponsible” when meeting with the US ambassador to China, Max Baucus.
Addressing journalists in Beijing, Lu Kang, a foreign ministry spokesperson, said China was strongly dissatisfied with America’s actions, which he described as a threat to China’s sovereignty. He refused to be drawn on whether China would consider a military response, but said: “We hope that the US side will not take actions that will backfire.”
Lu warned that further “provocative actions” might lead to accelerated Chinese construction in the South China Sea: “It would be a pity for us to realise that we have to strengthen and speed up relevant construction activities.”
The Chinese embassy in Washington said the concept of “freedom of navigation” should not be used as an excuse for muscle-flexing and the US should “refrain from saying or doing anything provocative and act responsibly in maintaining regional peace and stability”.
China’s military buildup in the South China Sea – including the construction of a 3km runway capable of supporting fighter jets – has become a major source of tension between Beijing and Washington.
China claims most of the South China Sea, one of the world’s busiest sea lanes, although Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines and Taiwan have rival claims. Beijing says the islands will have mainly civilian uses as well as undefined defence purposes.
But satellite photographs have shown the construction of three military-length airstrips by China in the Spratlys, including one each on Mischief and Subi reefs.
Both reefs were submerged at high tide before China began a massive dredging project in 2014. It now claims a 22.2km territorial limit around the artificial islands, although the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea says such limits cannot be set around man-made islands built on previously submerged reefs.
Barack Obama said he held “candid discussions” with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, over the issue during Xi’s recent state visit to the US.
Earlier this month, Beijing officials cautioned the US against “provocative” actions in the South China Sea. “China will never allow any country to violate China’s territorial waters and airspace in the South China Sea,” foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said.
Security experts in Washington described Tuesday’s intervention as a victory for hawks in the administration who had been pushing hard for a symbolic gesture against Chinese territorial claims. The Pentagon insisted it was within its rights under maritime law to enter such waters, in a statement that coincided with a visit to Washington by Indonesian president Joko Widodo.
“The United States is conducting routine operations in the South China Sea in accordance with international law,” Bill Urban, a US defence department spokesperson told the Guardian. “US forces operate in the Asia-Pacific region on a daily basis, including in the South China Sea. All operations are conducted in accordance with international law.”
State department spokesperson John Kirby said: “It’s one of the reasons you have a navy, to be able to exert influence and to defend freedom of navigation in international waters.”
White House officials said Widodo and Obama had also discussed the issue during their meeting in Washington and claimed Chinese aggression “increased tensions, eroded trust, and threatened to undermine peace, security, and the economic wellbeing of the region”.
Obama is said to have been under particular pressure to tackle the issue ahead of an upcoming meeting of the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean).
But pressure was also mounting at home. Arkansas Republican Dan Sullivan said many members of the Senate armed services committee had been concerned that US “inaction” in the South China Sea was “undermining US credibility”.
But some US security experts criticised the administration for appearing to time its intervention to suit conflicting agendas of the Asean and Paris summits rather than more boldly assert the principle of freedom of navigation. – © Guardian News & Media 2015
Making waves in South China Sea could lead to a head-on collision
The presence of a United States warship in disputed waters is sure to draw retaliation from Beijing, which could worsen China’s ties with the US and spread to other rows in the Far East region.
President Barack Obama’s decision to send a guided-missile destroyer into disputed waters off the Spratly islands in the South China Sea on Tuesday has provoked predictable outpourings of rage and veiled threats from Beijing. The worry now is that the confrontation will catch fire, escalate and spread.
Both China and the US have boxed themselves into a rhetorical and tactical corner. With the Pentagon insisting it will repeat and extend such naval patrols at will, and with the People’s Liberation Army Navy determined to stop them, it is feared a head-on collision cannot be far away.
Having personally failed to find a compromise in White House talks last month with Xi Jinping, China’s president, Obama has upped the ante. As is also the case with Xi, it is now all but impossible to envisage an American climbdown without enormous loss of face and prestige.
By deploying a powerful warship, by declining to inform China in advance, and by insisting the US is upholding the universal principle of free navigation in international waters and will do so again whenever and wherever it wishes, Obama has deliberately challenged Beijing to do its worst.
Chinese retaliation, when it comes, and it surely must, may not centre specifically on the Spratlys. There are plenty of other potential trouble spots and flashpoints where Beijing might seek to give the Americans pause. In prospect is a sort of geopolitical chain reaction.
A spokesperson, Lu Kang, hinted as much this week: “China hopes to use peaceful means to resolve all the disputes, but if China has to make a response then the timing, method and tempo of the response will be made in accordance with China’s wishes and needs.”
China is in dispute over other South China Sea islands and reefs with several countries that are all more or less at one with the US on the issue, including the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia. Renewed trouble could flare up in any of these places. One possibility is the Senkaku islands (Diaoyu in Chinese) in the East China Sea, claimed by both Japan and China. In 2013 Beijing upped the ante, unilaterally declaring an air exclusion, or identification, zone in the area, which the US promptly breached with B52 bombers.
This dispute forms part of the background to the military buildup ordered by Japan’s hawkish prime minister, Shinzo Abe.
Reacting to the perceived China threat, Abe is extending Okinawa’s defences and getting involved in South China Sea patrols in support of Washington. Japan also strengthened defence and security ties with Britain – a development that now makes Prime Minister David Cameron’s courtship of Beijing seem all the more incongruous.
Taiwan is another powder keg that could be ignited by widening US-China confrontation. While Beijing regards Taiwan as a renegade province and seeks its return, the present-day status quo is underwritten by US military might.
Tensions with the mainland have eased, but elections in January are expected to bring the more pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party to power. This could provoke Beijing.
US-China naval and aerial rivalry could expand even further afield. China is busy building a maritime force capable of operating across the deep waters of open oceans, including aircraft carriers, with the aim of challenging US dominance in the eastern Pacific.
Chinese naval ships recently showed up off the Aleutian islands during a visit by Obama to Alaska, the mineral-rich Arctic being another possible theatre.
Meanwhile, regional Western allies such as Australia have cause for concern that escalating superpower friction could draw them in. – Simon Tisdall
– © Guardian News & Media 2015