China summoned the American ambassador to angrily protest the US Navy’s sailing of a warship close to one of China’s artificial islands in the South China Sea, in a daring act by the Navy that challenged Chinese sovereignty claims.
China’s Foreign Ministry said on its website Wednesday that Executive Vice Minister Zhang Yesui told Max Baucus that the US had acted in defiance of repeated Chinese objections and had threatened China’s sovereignty and security. While offering no details, Zhang said Tuesday’s “provocative” maneuver also placed personnel and infrastructure on the island in jeopardy.
China was “extremely dissatisfied and a resolutely opposed” the US actions, the ministry said.
China says authorities monitored and warned the destroyer USS Lassen as it entered what China claims as a 12-mile (21-kilometer) territorial limit around Subi Reef in the Spratly Islands archipelago, a group of reefs, islets, and atolls where the Philippines has competing claims.
The warship sail-past fits a US policy of pushing back against China’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea. US ally the Philippines welcomed the move as a way of helping maintain “a balance of power.”
Since 2013, China has accelerated the creation of new outposts by piling sand atop reefs and atolls then adding buildings, ports and airstrips big enough to handle bombers and fighter jets — activities seen as attempting to change the territorial status by altering the geography.
Navy officials had said the sail-past was necessary to assert the US position that China’s man-made islands cannot be considered sovereign territory with the right to surrounding territorial waters.
International law permits military vessels the right of “innocent passage” in transiting other country’s seas without notification.
The US says it insists on freedom of navigation and overflight. About 30 percent of global trade passes through the South China Sea, which also has rich fishing grounds and a potential wealth of undersea mineral deposits.
China says virtually all of the South China Sea belongs to it, while Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam – many of whom are US allies – claim either parts or all of it.
State Department spokesman John Kirby said Tuesday the US has a right to freedom of navigation in international waters.
Speaking to foreign correspondents in Manila, Philippine President Benigno Aquino III said he supported the US naval maneuvers as an assertion of freedom of navigation and as a means to balance power in the region.
“I think expressing support for established norms of international behavior should not be a negative for a country,” he said. “I think everybody would welcome a balance of power anywhere in the world.”
Without identifying China by name, he said “one regional power” has been making “controversial pronouncements” that must not be left unchallenged.
“Make no mistake, the United States will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows, as we do around the world, and the South China Sea is not and will not be an exception,” Defense Secretary Ash Carter said earlier this month.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said such actions by the US might end up spurring further advances in China’s defense capabilities.
“If any country wishes to disrupt or impede China’s reasonable, justifiable and lawful activities on our own territories by playing some little tricks, I would advise these countries to cast off this fantasy,” Lu said.
The South China Sea has become an increasingly sore point in relations with the United States.
The Associated Press contributed to this article