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Showdown at sea: China slams 'illegal' U.S. sea patrol
03:27 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Gregory Poling is director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies and a fellow with the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at CSIS. The views expressed are his own.

Story highlights

U.S. Navy warship sailed close to China-built artificial island this week

Gregory Poling: Pentagon oversees dozens of freedom of navigation operations every year

CNN  — 

China’s government isn’t happy.

In a statement issued Tuesday, the country’s Foreign Ministry warned that U.S. actions had “threatened China’s sovereignty and security interest, and has put the safety of personnel” in danger.

The statement was issued in response to the U.S. decision to dispatch the guided missile destroyer USS Lassen for several hours on a “freedom of navigation” operation near the disputed waters of Subi Reef, which has drawn international attention since China began constructing an artificial island there.

But although the Lassen was deliberately sent to within 12 nautical miles of the feature (12 miles being the hypothetical width of territorial sea around Subi), and despite China warning against the use of “gimmicks,” the U.S. decision should not be seen as a provocation or even deterrence.

Instead, this week’s move was part of a regular program of U.S. military activities around the globe intended to assert the rights of military and civilian vessels to operate anywhere allowed by international law.

Gregory Poling

The Pentagon oversees dozens of freedom of navigation operations every year targeting excessive maritime claims made by countries ranging from outright antagonists to some of the United States’ closest allies.

In 2014, the U.S. military used these operations to contest claims made by nearly all the countries surrounding the South China Sea, meaning not just China but also the Philippines – a treaty ally – and Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam.

Why now?

This also isn’t the first time the U.S. Navy has engaged in freedom of navigation operations near Subi Reef – as recently as 2012, it did so in the Spratly Islands, of which Subi Reef is a part.

Indeed, as U.S. officials have insisted throughout the surprisingly public debate on whether to engage in such operations around Chinese-occupied features in the South China Sea, these activities by the Navy are not new, and they do not unfairly target Beijing.

But why now, and why at Subi Reef?

Navy and Pentagon officials have been urging the Obama administration since early summer to green-light freedom of navigation operations around some of China’s features in the South China Sea, but the White House had been hesitant.

More cautious voices in the administration worried that a Chinese overreaction could provoke a crisis without offering much payoff, and they argued that engaging in such activities would reduce the possibility of finding a diplomatic solution to the rising tensions in the region.

But the apparent inability of President Barack Obama to make any headway on the South China Sea issue with his counterpart Xi Jinping during the Chinese leader’s visit to Washington in late September swung the argument in favor of those pushing for such operations.

Xi’s visit actually seems to have convinced many holdouts that there is no diplomatic solution given Beijing’s current intransigence (an extremely ambiguous statement from President Xi about China’s “intention” not to “militarize” the features it occupies notwithstanding).

Subi Reef was one of two likely candidates for the latest freedom of navigation operations in the Spratlys, the other being Mischief Reef.

Both have proven controversial because the Chinese-occupied features were indisputably underwater before Beijing launched its massive island-building campaign last year, and both are too far away from any potential island or rock to fall within another feature’s territorial sea.

Seabed, not land

So Subi is legally part of the seabed, and not entitled to any territorial waters.

The just-concluded operation was not a challenge to China’s claim to Subi Reef itself, but rather to what kind of waters and rights China thinks the reef grants it. It was a case study aimed at challenging the excessive and ambiguous claims that China makes throughout the disputed South China Sea more generally.

After the U.S. move, China responded that “if relevant parties insist on creating tensions in the region and making trouble out of nothing, it may force China to draw the conclusion that we need to strengthen and hasten the buildup of our relevant capabilities.” But despite the apparent seriousness of such warnings, escalating tensions are not inevitable.

How can conflict be avoided?

The best hope for a long-term peaceful solution in the South China Sea is to convince Beijing that it is undermining its own wider interests by maintaining unlawful claims in disputed waters.

Washington has consistently called on Chinese leaders and their counterparts throughout the region to bring their claims in these waters into conformity with international law, and these freedom of navigation operations should be seen as part of that goal.

And the responses from different parts of the Chinese government to the recent operation are telling. Beijing is effectively expressing anger over the Lassen’s operations near Subi, but it is struggling to come up with a legal rationale for its objections.

Of course, a one-off operation will not persuade Beijing to clarify its claims. In fact, that would actually undermine the United States’ position that these activities are normal and not provocative. That means that whatever the protestations from Beijing and others, this will no doubt be just the first of many freedom of navigation operations in and around the Spratly Islands.

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