China Calls U.S. Challenge Over Island Threat to Regional Peace

What Message Is U.S. Sending to China in South Sea?
  • U.S. warship sails within 12 nautical miles of Chinese island
  • China built island to assert claims to South China Sea

China said it will take “all necessary measures” to defend its territory after the U.S. sailed a warship through waters claimed by China in the disputed South China Sea, a move the government in Beijing called a threat to peace and stability in Asia.

QuickTake Territorial Disputes

“The behavior of the U.S. warship threatened China’s sovereignty and national interest, endangered the safety of the island’s staff and facilities, and harmed the regional peace and stability,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said in a statement today. “The Chinese side expressed its strong discontent and firm opposition.”

The comments came hours after the USS Lassen passed within 12-nautical miles of Subi Reef, an island built by China as a platform to assert its claim to almost 80 percent of one of the world’s busiest waterways. By passing so close to the man-made island, the U.S. is showing it doesn’t recognize that the feature qualifies for a 12-nautical mile territorial zone under international law.

The patrol marks the most direct attempt by the U.S. to challenge China’s territorial claims and comes weeks after President Barack Obama told President Xi Jinping at a Washington summit that the U.S. would enforce freedom of navigation and that China should refrain from militarizing the waterway. The spat threatens to fuel U.S.-China tensions ahead of multilateral meetings to be attended by Xi and Obama, including the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in the Philippine capital next month.

MISCHIEF REEF, CHINA - MARCH 16, 2015:  DigitalGlobe imagery from 16 March 2015 shows significant construction and dredging underway at Mischief Reef.  New structures, fortified seawalls, and construction equipment are present at multiple sites.  (Photo DigitalGlobe via Getty Images)
MISCHIEF REEF, CHINA - MARCH 16, 2015: DigitalGlobe imagery from 16 March 2015 shows significant construction and dredging underway at Mischief Reef. New structures, fortified seawalls, and construction equipment are present at multiple sites. (Photo DigitalGlobe via Getty Images)

‘Risky Behavior’

In a strongly-worded statement, Lu said the USS Lassen had “illegally” entered Chinese waters and that “relevant Chinese departments monitored, shadowed and warned the U.S. ship.” China has “indisputable” sovereignty over the Spratly Islands and surrounding waters, Lu said.

China bases its claims to most of the sea, a conduit for trade and energy supplies between Europe and Asia, on a so-called nine-dash line for which it won’t give precise coordinates. China has stepped up its island building in the past year and is installing runways capable of handling military aircraft to extend its control over the waterway, parts of which are also claimed by the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan.

“What the U.S. is doing now will only damage the stability in the South China Sea, and send the wrong message to neighboring nations such as the Philippines and encourage them to take some risky behavior,” said Xu Liping, a professor of Southeast Asian studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a government-linked institute.

Chinese aerospace companies and shipbuilders rallied on news of the patrol. Shipbuilder China CSSC Holdings Ltd. climbed 4.4 percent in Shanghai, while Aerospace Communications Holding Group Co. surged 10 percent.

The U.S. had previously flown Poseidon surveillance aircraft in the area, though not within 12 nautical miles of the islands. The U.S. Navy patrol was part of routine operations to defend freedom of navigation in accordance with international law, according to a Defense Department official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“There are billions of dollars of commerce that flow through that region of the world every year,” said White House spokesman Josh Earnest. “Ensuring the free flow of this commerce and that freedom of navigation of those vessels is protected is critically important to the global economy.”

The nearly completed construction within the Fiery Cross Reef located in the South China Sea.
The nearly completed construction within the Fiery Cross Reef located in the South China Sea.
Photographer: DigitalGlobe/ScapeWare3d/DigitalGlobe/Getty Images

Air Defense Zone

China may choose to respond without directly challenging U.S. ships with its Navy or coast guard. It could declare an Air Defense Identification Zone over the South China Sea, or speed up the militarization of the area by deploying extra forces, including combat aircraft, to the islands, said Malcolm Davis, an assistant professor in China-Western relations at Bond University on Australia’s Gold Coast.

“The ball would then be back in the U.S.’s court,” Davis said. “A Chinese attempt to enforce an ADIZ over the South China Sea would increase tensions with its neighbors, most notably Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia, and they would place increasing pressure on Washington not to back down.”

China’s foreign ministry said in May it reserves the right to establish an air zone over the South China Sea. In November 2013 it set up a zone covering islands in the East China Sea also claimed by Japan, prompting the U.S. to fly B-52 bombers into the area to challenge its enforcement.

China’s South China Sea reclamation program created 2,900 acres in the Spratlys as of June, according to the Pentagon. China contends its building of airstrips and other facilities is mostly for civilian purposes.

Philippine President Benigno Aquino said he had no objection to U.S. ships sailing near the disputed territory as long as the vessels adhere to international law and have no hostile intentions. The Philippines has has taken its territorial dispute with China to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague. China has said it doesn’t accept the proceedings, and won’t take part in arbitration.

The tensions impact on Japan’s security, Defense Minister Gen Nakatani said. “Our country believes it is important for the international community to work together to protect open, free and peaceful seas,” he said, declining to comment on the specific U.S. operation. Japan is not a claimant in the South China Sea.

“Large-scale land reclamation in the South China Sea and the building of bases changes the status quo and raises tensions,” he told reporters Tuesday. “Such one-sided actions are a common concern of international society.”

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