The United States made good on its promise to challenge Beijing’s sovereignty claims in the South China Sea by sailing the USS Lassen, one of its destroyers, inside the 12-nautical mile bubble surrounding newly constructed islands.
The Lassen sailed close to the Subi and Mischief Reefs in the contested Spratly island group and was immediately challenged by Chinese vessels who shadowed the American vessel informing it had “illegally” entered its territorial waters.
What’s unclear from the reports is how far the USS Lassen went pass the barrier, but as we learned from Mark Cozad, Senior Defense Policy Analyst at the RAND Corporation in a recent Asia Now Podcast, it isn’t so much how deep the vessel penetrates, but the overall statement made.
Philippine President Benigno Aquino said he welcomed the US patrol calling it a “balance of power.”
“Freedom of navigation has been expounded and propounded by all parties to the issues of the South China Sea/West Philippines Sea,” he said before adding, “Everybody seems to be guaranteeing freedom of navigation, so I see no issue as to this US naval ship traversing under international law in waters that should be free to be travelled upon by any non-belligerent country.”
Beijing didn’t see it that way and summoned the US Ambassador over the incident.
China’s Foreign Ministry said, “China will resolutely respond to any country’s deliberate provocations. We will continue to closely monitor the relevant seas and airspace, and take all necessary steps in accordance with the need. China strongly urges the US side to conscientiously handle China’s serious representations, immediately correct its mistake and not take any dangerous or provocative acts that threaten China’s sovereignty and security interests.”
China claimed the US patrol was a “coercive action that seeks to militarize the South China Sea region” and an “abuse” of freedom of navigation under international law.
The United States said in its briefing, this wasn’t a one-off incident and more patrols in the region would follow in the next few weeks around island features Vietnam and the Philippines have constructed in the Spratlys.
As Cozad said in the Asia Now interview, he doesn’t expect China to respond irrationally or for the incident to get out of hand between Washington and Beijing, but should a third-party enter the mix, then that could change the situation rapidly.
Expect tension and rhetoric in the region to rise as this game of chess between the two super powers gets underway.