U.S. Warship in South China Sea

Chloe Yueh '17, Staff Writer

On October 27, the U.S. Navy made a long-anticipated entry into the disputed waters of South China Sea. The USS Lassen, a guided missile destroyer, sailed within 12 nautical miles of Subi Reef, on which China has built an artificial island. The warship was sent to challenge Beijing’s territorial claims in the disputed waters. China responded quickly by tracking the ship and warning the U.S. not to take any “reckless actions.” According to China’s Defense Ministry, the patrol of the USS Lassen “threatened its territorial rights and security.” On the other hand, the United States argued that the territorial claims made by China were illegal and did not recognize the man-made islands as territory at all.

The South China Sea has been a subject of rivalry and overlapping territorial claims for the past several years, with China, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam all arguing that they have sovereignty over the islands in the area. Since last year, China has reclaimed more than 2000 acres at Subi, Mischief, and Fiery Cross reefs in the Spratly Islands by building man-made islands on them, which sparked many heated protests from the surrounding countries. Recent satellite images have shown China building airstrips on these islands that are capable of handling bombers. However, China has stated multiple times that its activity in the South China Sea does not target any countries or affect the freedom of navigation by sea or air.

Apparently, the United States has a completely different idea about this issue. Under maritime law, the 12-mile territorial zone cannot be set around artificial islands on most occasions, and therefore, the patrol of the USS Lassen is in accordance with the freedom of navigation. In addition, American officials stated that the operations were “routine, global in scope, and executed against a wide range of excessive maritime claims.” Throughout the years, the U.S. has been performing “Freedom of Navigation” operations in other regions, such as in  the Straits of Malacca and the Black Sea.

In what some analysts saw as a movement to preempt the U.S. naval operation, China sent five warships into the United States’ territorial waters in Alaska while President Obama was visiting the state in September. However, U.S. officials said that the two operations were incomparable, as international laws allow passage (like the Chinese voyage near Alaska) if there is no other route for a ship to reach its destination.  In the event of the Spratly archipelago, there were other routes that the United States warship could have used, but the Navy deliberately chose to enter waters that China claims as its territory in order to reinforce the right of freedom of navigation.

While testifying on Capitol Hill, U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter made clear that the missions would continue: “We will fly, sail and operate wherever international law permits and wherever our operational needs require.”

The USS Lassen
Image Credit: Google Images