As The Diplomat’s Ankit Panda reported, on Tuesday the U.S. Navy finally carried out a freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) within 12 nautical miles of China’s artificially-built islands. After months of media reports indicating Washington was coming ever closer to such patrols, the USS Lassen, an Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer, sailed within 12 nautical miles of Subi Reef (and possibly Mischief Reef as well), according to U.S. officials who spoke with the media.
We’ve known this was coming for weeks – ever since Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to the United States in late September, there has been a steady stream of reports based on comments from unnamed U.S. officials. The media coverage effectively amount to a countdown: the U.S. will conduct FONOPs within the next two weeks — the next few days — the next 24 hours. That was intentional, likely designed to give China plenty of warning – and plenty of time to formulate an official response (rather than leaving the reaction in the hands of a military officer on the ground).
Beijing’s response, according to China’s foreign ministry, included following the USS Lassen as it transited waters near Chinese-controlled features in the Spratly Islands. “Relevant authorities of the Chinese side monitored, followed, and warned the U.S. vessel,” spokesperson Lu Kang said. Lu did not provide any details on which vessels, or how many, were involved on the Chinese side. However, there is no indication that China threatened or harassed the U.S. vessel, meaning China is limiting its response to the diplomatic realm.
Verbally, though, Beijing unleashed its criticism. Lu said that the USS Lassen “illegally entered waters near relevant islands and reefs of China’s Nansha Islands [the Spratly Islands] without the permission of the Chinese government.” The U.S. patrol “threatened China’s sovereignty and security interests, put the personnel and facilities on the islands and reefs at risk and endangered regional peace and stability,” Lu added. “The Chinese side hereby expresses strong dissatisfaction and opposition.”
Lu repeated China’s stance that it has “indisputable sovereignty” over the Spratly Islands “and their adjacent waters” – meaning, according to China, that Beijing is perfectly justified in undertaking construction activities on the features. Lu also reaffirmed China’s promise that said construction “will not have any impact on the freedom of navigation and over-flight in the South China Sea to which all countries are entitled under international law.”
Lu clarified further:
The Chinese side respects and safeguards the freedom of navigation and over-flight in the South China Sea to which all countries are entitled under international law, but stands firmly against the harm caused by any country to China’s sovereignty and security interests under the cloak of navigation and over-flight freedom.
In fact, Lu said in a routine press conference on Tuesday, China “cares more about navigation safety and freedom in the South China Sea” than any other country. But “commercial shipping is different from military actions,” Lu said.
It’s long been clear that the U.S. and China don’t quite see eye to eye on the crucial question of the freedom of navigation and overflight that is guaranteed by international law, particularly when it comes to military vessels. China has consistently protested against U.S. surveillance operations within the Chinese exclusive economic zone, for example, while Washington argues that states cannot restrict such activities within their EEZs.
In this instance, the United States has been clear that it does not believe artificial islands that were previously below water at high tide (like Mischief and Subi Reefs) are entitled to a territorial sea, and thus that any vessel can come within 12 nautical miles of the features without violating international law. Interestingly, China has not explicitly claimed a 12 nautical mile territorial sea around Mischief and Subi Reefs, but circumstantial evidence strongly suggests China does intend to claim territorial waters around these features – thus the strong protest when the USS Lassen entered the 12 nm zone.
In his press conference on Tuesday, Lu rejected any comparison between a Chinese naval vessels coming within 12 nm of U.S. islands in the Aleutians and the USS Lassen’s actions on Tuesday. The U.S. operation is not a case of “so-called exercise of navigation freedom,” Lu said, but is “a threat to China’s sovereignty and security.”
Washington, meanwhile, sought to soften the blow by saying it also intended to carry out similar FONOPs around reclaimed features controlled by Vietnam and the Philippines. China is not convinced, according to Xinhua: “Gimmicks like conducting patrols around South China Sea features built up by Vietnam and the Philippines — which have illegally occupied some of China’s islands — cannot conceal to which side the United States is tilted.”
With the verbal warnings out of the way – and the U.S. clear that it intends these FONOPs to be a regular occurrence – the real question is what China will do next. Lu said that China “is steadfast in safeguarding its territorial sovereignty and security as well as lawful and justified maritime rights and interests.”
“The Chinese side will firmly respond to any deliberate provocation by any country,” he added, saying China would watch the situation carefully “and take all necessary measures as needed.”
In the press conference on Tuesday, Lu was adamant that China will not change its behavior, including construction on the Spratlys. If any country thinks it can interfere with or even block China’s activities, Lu said, they should “cast aside the illusion the sooner the better.” China prefers a peaceful settlement to the issues, Lu said, but if China is forced to react, it will do so in a way and at a time dictated by China’s own will and needs.
In fact, Lu said, if the “relevant side” (read: the U.S.) continues to raise tensions in the region, in the end China will be forced to come to the conclusion that it must “to step up and speed up relevant capacity building.” “We advise the U.S. not to take self-defeating actions,” Lu said.
So: a military confrontation between the U.S. and China over such FONOPs seems unlikely, but China has also made clear that it won’t back down – and might, on the contrary, step up construction in the South China Sea.
This piece has been updated to reflect the official English translation of Lu’s comments.