There’s a showdown in the South Pacific between the Chinese and US Navy. China’s Foreign Ministry said authorities monitored and warned the US Navy, telling it not to enter what China claims as a 12-mile territorial limit around Subi Reef where the US-allied Philippines has competing claims.
The US Navy responded to the warnings with a message of their own – Back off, China. They sent the USS Lassen, a guided missile destroyer, and sailed the warship past the artificial islands in the South China Sea today, a direct challenge to Chinese sovereignty claims that drew an angry protest from Beijing.
The 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 an attempt to change the territorial status quo by changing the geography.
Navy officials had said the sail-past was necessary to assert the US. position that China’s manmade 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 doesn’t take a position on sovereignty over the South China Sea but 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 claim either parts or all of it.
“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.
State Department spokesman John Kirby said Monday the US would not be required to consult with other nations if it decided to conduct freedom of navigation operations in international waters.
“The whole point of freedom of navigation in international waters is that it’s international waters. You don’t need to consult with anybody,” Kirby said.
The Associated Press contributed to this story