As in previous incidents, Beijing is likely to voice its outrage for a time, before reasserting the wisdom of the government’s calculated approach to its crucial relationship with the U.S. However, the testy reaction underlines tensions in the strategically vital region through which about one-third of global trade passes. Frictions are likely to worsen as Washington’s renewed focus on Asia rubs up against Beijing’s increasingly robust assertions of its claim to virtually the entire sea and its islands, reefs and atolls. China says its sovereignty claims do not conflict with the rights of other nations to operate in the South China Sea, although the Defense Ministry accused the U.S. of abusing those rights.
The maneuver itself was relatively tame. The U.S. Navy sailed the guided missile destroyer USS Lassen past an artificial island created on Subi Reef in the Spratly archipelago. The route was within a 12-nautical mile (22-kilometer) territorial limit that China might claim around the reef. However, international law permits “innocent passage” of warships through other countries’ territorial seas without any need for prior notification, and there was no indication the ship did anything other than pass through. Still, the U.S. said ahead of the trip that it was aimed at challenging any Chinese claims that the newly created islands are its sovereign territory.
The sail-by was intended to reinforce Washington’s insistence on freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea, parts of which are claimed not only by China but by the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei. While the U.S. says it takes no view on ownership claims, it insists that the man-made islands China has created do not constitute sovereign territory and cannot claim territorial seas. Until the legal status of South China Sea is settled once and for all, such incidents “will continue unabated,” said U.S. Naval Academy China expert Yu Maochun.
China reacted angrily, saying the sail-by was illegal, that it infringed on Chinese sovereignty and that it threatened the security of the island and the region. It said the maneuver would affect China-U.S. relations and summoned American Ambassador Max Baucus in Beijing for a high-level protest. It is unclear on what basis China claims the sail-by was illegal, partly because it has never clarified the basis of its claims to territory in the South China Sea. The Chinese response – limited so far only to rhetoric – suggests Beijing may tacitly acknowledges the freedom of navigation in the area, but does “not want the U.S. to make a regular practice of it,” said Phillip Saunders, director of the U.S. National Defense University’s Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs.
Chinese Internet forums lit up with calls for a hard line against the U.S. The official China Daily newspaper published an editorial Wednesday accusing Washington of “stirring the waters at the risk of regional peace and stability,” and of using coercion to challenge what it called China’s legitimate territorial claims. Public sentiment strongly favors China displaying its military superiority in the face of defiant acts by rival claimants, especially the Philippines and Vietnam, although Beijing has so far shied away from military escalation. Passions over the South China Sea pale in comparison to negative sentiment toward old rival Japan, with which China is competing over control of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea.
China has said it will continue work on island-building projects now underway, including the construction of buildings, harbors and airstrips on top of them. However, Washington’s regional allies have been buoyed by the show of U.S. resolve that follows warming military ties with the Philippines, former foe Vietnam and others. That may stiffen the determination of China’s neighbors to stand up to Beijing’s assertiveness. Other players in the region, including Singapore and Indonesia, are wary of being caught up in a sharpening dispute between Washington and Beijing and all sides are calling for negotiations on a long-term solution to head off the possibility of conflict.