US Navy Ship Patrols Waters Claimed by China; Foreign Minister Warns US Not to ‘Stir Up Troubles’

By Patrick Goodenough | October 26, 2015 | 8:40 PM EDT

The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Lassen. (Photo: U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Declan Barnes)

(CNSNews.com) –  China’s foreign minister warned the U.S. Tuesday not to “stir up troubles,” in response to reports that a U.S. Navy destroyer was to sail within 12 nautical miles of artificial islands Beijing has constructed in the South China Sea.

The plan for the USS Lassen, an Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer, to sail within 12 miles of the manmade islands came six weeks after U.S. lawmakers urged a senior Department of Defense official to do just that, to make it clear to China that the U.S. does not recognize its sovereignty claims in the South China Sea.

China’s foreign ministry quoted Foreign Minister Wang Yi as saying China was looking into the reports. “If it is true, we urge the U.S. side to think twice, not to take rash moves and stir up troubles,” Wang said.

Chinese state media warned recently that it would be a “grave mistake” for U.S. Navy ships to sail near the islands, and said China would respond “appropriately and decisively” to any such act.

Chinese land reclamation projects in the area since last year have expanded previously submerged reefs and outcrops in the Spratly chain into sizeable artificial islands. Earlier this year satellite imagery showed what appeared to be an airstrip capable of accommodating military aircraft, fueling concerns about China's intentions. Beijing has denied any plan to militarize the reclaimed islands.

U.S. defense officials speaking on background told media outlets the USS Lassen, which is forward deployed at Yokosuka, Japan, would patrol near the Subi and Mischief reefs, and that a U.S. Navy surveillance plane would likely accompany it. A defense official subsequently told the Associated Press that the patrol, which had been approved by the White House, had been completed without incident.

China is engaged in disputes with the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan over resource-rich areas of the South China Sea, an area that includes some of the world’s most important shipping trade corridors.

The U.S. says it takes no sides in the various disputes, but that freedom of navigation must be upheld. It routinely called on all claimants to take steps to reduce tensions.

China is adamant about its rights to virtually the entire South China Sea. Last month, shortly before President Xi Jinping paid an official visit to the U.S., a Chinese Navy admiral said in London that “the South China Sea, as the name indicates, is a sea that belongs to China.”

But U.S. Pacific Command commander Adm. Harry Harris Jr., told a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on September 17, “the South China Sea is no more China’s than the Gulf of Mexico is Mexico’s.”

The panel heard from another witness, assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific security affairs David Shear, that the last time U.S. Navy ships had entered waters within 12 miles of China-claimed areas in the South China Sea was in 2012.

Committee chairman Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said that was unacceptable. The U.S. Navy should peacefully sail within 12 miles of the artificial islands, he said, arguing that failure to do so “grants de-facto recognition of China’s man-made sovereignty claims.”

‘Provocation’

In a recent editorial, China’s official news agency Xinhua warned that the U.S. “could shoot itself in the foot” if it went ahead with patrols within the 12-mile limit of “China’s islands.”

It said the move would leave China with “no choice but to beef up its defense capabilities.”

“No doubt that if Washington goes ahead with the patrol plan, it should bear responsibility for escalating tensions in the region, raising danger of miscalculation, and complicating the efforts to seek diplomatic resolution of the disputes.”

China would “respond to any provocation appropriately and decisively,” the editorial concluded.

Under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, nations can claim territorial sovereignty over waters 12 nautical miles from their coastlines.

The U.S. disputes that this is applicable in the case of the manmade islands.

“Creating an island through reclamation doesn’t change the maritime zone around it,” then-State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke said last May. “It’s only naturally-formed land features that are entitled to maritime zones.”

Not recognizing China’s sovereignty claims in the area, the U.S. argues for the right to sail through what it regards as international waters, and to do so without consultation.

“The whole point of freedom of navigation in international waters is that it’s international waters,” State Department spokesman John Kirby, a retired U.S. Navy rear admiral, said on Monday. “You don’t need to consult with anybody.”

Meeting at the White House Monday, President Obama and Indonesian President Joko Widodo called in a joint statement for all parties to avoid actions that could raise tensions in the South China Sea, and affirmed the freedom of navigation and overflight.

Indonesia is not directly involved in the disputes, but is a leading member of the Association of South East Asian Nations. Apart from Taiwan, the various countries wrangling with China are all ASEAN members.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow

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