Tensions have risen between the United States and China after a US destroyer sailed near Chinese artificial islands in the disputed South China Sea.
The destroyer USS Lassen passed within 12 nautical miles of Zhubi Reef in the Spratly Islands, which have been the subject of extensive Chinese land-reclamation efforts, early on Tuesday morning.
China has been dumping sand onto undersea reefs in the region, creating artificial islands with airstrips and sea ports. However, the United States does not recognise China’s claim over the archipelago, known in China as the Nansha Islands, considering the South China Sea to be international waters.
“We are conducting routine operations in the South China Sea in accordance with international law,” a US defence official said. “US forces operate in the Asia-Pacific region on a daily basis, including in the South China Sea. We conduct Freedom of Navigation operations on a regular basis around the world, and they are distinct from the question of sovereignty over these islands.”
China has condemned the operation, with Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lu Kang stating it “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”.
“China’s sovereignty and relevant rights over the South China Sea have been formed over the long course of history and upheld by successive Chinese governments,” Mr Kang said. “Construction by the Chinese side on its own territory is in the realm of China’s sovereignty. It does not target nor affect any country, and 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.”
The move comes two weeks after US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter, at a joint press conference with Australian officials, reaffirmed America’s stance on China’s “coercion and infringement on well-established international norms”.
“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,” Mr Carter said. “This is not simply a U.S. commitment, our two nations are joined by an increasing number of countries in the neighborhood, including Japan, the Philippines, India and Vietnam, all with an interest in prospering while solving regional issues.”
China’s claims over the South China Sea have caused friction with its immediate neighbours, including the Philippines, Vietnam and with the United States. A US observation plane was ordered by the Chinese military to leave the area in May. – Jake Nelson
Top photo of the USS Lassen in 2003 from the United States Navy.