U.S. Dispatches Warship to Challenge China’s Artificial Islands

After months of debate, the Obama administration finally decided to send a destroyer to uphold freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, which Beijing is trying to fence off. But the potentially risky move is unlikely to deter China.

EAST SEA - JULY 27:  In this handout from the U.S. Navy, the guided-missile destroyers USS Lassen (L) and USS Chung-Hoon (R) are underway in the Sea of Japan July 27, 2010 in the East Sea. The Republic of Korea and the United States are conducting the combined alliance maritime and air readiness exercise "Invincible Spirit" in the seas east of the Korean peninsula from July 25-28, 2010.  (Photo by John J. Mike/U.S. Navy via Getty Images)
EAST SEA - JULY 27: In this handout from the U.S. Navy, the guided-missile destroyers USS Lassen (L) and USS Chung-Hoon (R) are underway in the Sea of Japan July 27, 2010 in the East Sea. The Republic of Korea and the United States are conducting the combined alliance maritime and air readiness exercise "Invincible Spirit" in the seas east of the Korean peninsula from July 25-28, 2010. (Photo by John J. Mike/U.S. Navy via Getty Images)

The United States is belatedly trying to challenge Beijing’s “great wall of sand” in the South China Sea by sailing a warship near man-made islands that China is using to underpin its expansive territorial claims.

Designed to push back against China’s challenge to international order, the naval patrol risks a potential military confrontation in the short term. Yet it offers little prospect of dissuading Beijing from pursuing its far-reaching territorial ambitions in one of the world’s most important waterways.

After months of deliberations and private appeals from Asian allies, President Barack Obama’s administration ordered a guided missile destroyer, the USS Lassen, to sail within a 12-nautical-mile boundary of two artificial islands, the Subi and Mischief reefs in the Spratly Island chain, military officials said Monday. The naval patrol will likely be carried out in a matter of hours, officials said.

U.S. officials indicated more so-called “freedom of navigation” operations would be carried out in the future near man-made features constructed by Beijing in the South China Sea. Such missions usually include surveillance aircraft, the officials said.

“We will sail in international waters at a time of our choosing,” a U.S. military official told Foreign Policy, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The administration’s plan to conduct expanded naval patrols near the man-made islands was first reported by FP on Oct. 2.

U.S. officials say the operation is vital to defending an international rules-based order, which in recent years China has systematically flouted in the South China Sea. But former U.S. officials and analysts say the patrols alone will not convince China to halt its massive reclamation work or drop its assertive stance on territorial claims in the disputed waters.

Even so, the patrols aim to reassure allies in the region who are anxious to see Washington counter what they see as Beijing’s coercive tactics in the South China Sea.

A consensus had emerged among maritime allies in the Pacific and U.S. commanders that the patrols had to be carried out “because the Chinese have gone so far for so long, that there’s a real credibility problem we face,” said Michael Green, a former senior National Security Council official who is now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Since 2014, China has spent billions of dollars to artificially expand seven reefs and atolls it claims in the South China Sea, making them big enough to dock ships and land military aircraft. U.S. officials also believe China could install radar and air-defense systems on the man-made features.

Although Washington and its allies view the trend with alarm, Chinese President Xi Jinping said during his U.S. visit last month that Beijing does not intend to “militarize” the South China Sea.

The USS Lassen will sail within 12 nautical miles of Subi and Mischief reefs to underscore that Washington does not view those waters as Chinese territory, as Beijing asserts.

But the expanded naval patrols could raise the danger of a potential collision or volatile incident between American and Chinese vessels or aircraft.

Over the last decade, U.S. and Chinese ships and planes have had several high-profile encounters, including the forced downing of a U.S. surveillance plane and Chinese efforts to ram a U.S. Navy ship. Most recently, after an American P-8 surveillance plane flew through international air space last May in the vicinity of one of Beijing’s artificial islands, Chinese officials repeatedly warned it to leave, calling the island and its airspace a “military alert zone.”

Days before Xi traveled to Washington last month, two Chinese fighter jets flew near a U.S. RC-135 reconnaissance plane east of the Shandong Peninsula in the Yellow Sea. And in a maneuver denounced by the Pentagon as reckless, a Chinese J-11 fighter jet passed within 20 feet of another American P-8 aircraft in August last year.

When U.S. naval officers first suggested conducting freedom of navigation operations at the disputed islands last month, Chinese Foreign Ministry officials shot back with vitriol, saying they were “seriously concerned.”

China, like the U.S., champions navigation freedom in the South China Sea, but opposes any country’s attempt to challenge China’s territorial sovereignty and security under the pretext of safeguarding navigation freedom,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said then.

“China urges [the] relevant party to exercise caution in its words and deeds, respect China’s territorial sovereignty and security interests, and refrain from taking any provocative and risky action,” he said.

This month, despite Xi’s pledge not to militarize the region, another Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said Beijing has the right to build “military facilities,” allegedly for “defense purposes,” on the disputed islands.

Since the end of World War II, the U.S. Navy has defended the principle of freedom of navigation around the world, by challenging states — friends and foes alike — that try to fence off international waters. For the last three decades, those kinds of operations have been formally carried out under the Pentagon’s Freedom of Navigation program. But the missions are usually routine and discreet, in sharp contrast to the high-profile, and well-telegraphed, mission in the South China Sea.

In 2014, the U.S. Navy carried out such operations against 19 countries, including China. But the administration’s discussions on performing the patrols in the South China Sea have been the subject of media reports and speculation for weeks.

“This is perhaps the most publicly debated operation in the history [of the program],” said M. Taylor Fravel, an expert on Chinese maritime issues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The United States and its partners in Southeast Asia have voiced mounting alarm over China’s massive reclamation effort in the Spratly Islands, which the Pentagon says now covers more than 3,000 acres.

Under international law, countries can claim a territorial sea that extends 12 nautical miles from its own coastlines and genuine islands that it possesses; those territorial waters are off-limits to warships from other nations.

But submerged rocks and reefs, even if they belonged to China, would not qualify as islands under international maritime law. Subi and Mischief are actually “low-tide elevations,” or features that are normally underwater and only appear at low tide.

Complicating the issue is the disputed ownership of the features themselves. China claims almost the entirety of the South China Sea, including most of the rocks, reefs, and atolls inside it, while neighboring nations such as Vietnam and the Philippines have competing claims to many of the features.

What’s more, China has not formally declared a 12-mile territorial sea around its artificial islands. Chinese diplomats have often spoken of the South China Sea as belonging to Beijing and point to a so-called “nine-dashed line” map that encloses most of the sea, but they have never clearly spelled out just what it claims.

“China claims indisputable sovereignty throughout the entire dashed-line claims, which is akin to a territorial sea,” said James Kraska, a law professor at the U.S. Naval War College.

Any U.S. challenge, such as sailing close to the reef with a destroyer or flying near it with surveillance planes, would be carefully tailored to protest China’s implicit claim of territorial waters.

“The freedom of navigation operation would indicate simply that the United States does not recognize a territorial sea around a low-tide elevation,” said Fravel. But that would not mean that Washington is disputing Beijing’s claims to the rocks themselves, he noted.

“Any freedom of navigation operation the United States might conduct would not challenge China’s claims to the Spratly Islands,” he said.

At times, U.S. efforts to uphold the four-century tradition of freedom of the seas have led to ugly confrontations. In 1981, shortly after the Pentagon formalized its periodic challenges in the Freedom of Navigation program, the United States decided to push back against Libya’s claim to the entirety of the Gulf of Sidra by dispatching a pair of aircraft carriers. Libya’s angry response led to a dogfight in which two Libyan jets were shot down. Similarly, in 1988, U.S. efforts to ensure freedom of navigation inside the Black Sea, not far from the Crimean Peninsula, led to a showdown with the Soviet navy, which rammed a pair of U.S. vessels.

The big question now is just how China responds to Washington’s challenge.

Experts said it was likely that Chinese protests would be limited to diplomatic démarches, rather than trying to physically interfere with the U.S. mission — especially since the United States has repeatedly carried out freedom of navigation operations against Chinese claims without incident. But given the high stakes, boiling Chinese nationalism, and the very public debate, Beijing may take more provocative action short of military force.

“We might expect that China, if it knows about the operation, will indeed signal displeasure by intercepting the vessel or aircraft and attempting to compel a change in course,” Kraska said.

Both he and Fravel said that the United States should have carried out the challenge differently, in line with past practice that was designed to minimize tension and the risk of escalation. Kraska said that a better time to push back against Chinese claims would have been in late August, when China dispatched five naval vessels to the Bering Sea during Obama’s visit to Alaska.

Although China shows no sign of halting its dredging work or easing off its claims, it is not looking for an armed conflict with the United States, Green said.

“I do not think China would have any interest in a military confrontation. It would be disastrous for [it] at a time when [its] economy is in trouble,” Green said.

“They will continue doing what they were doing anyway and claim they now have to defend the islands or possibly do a similar operation somewhere to show they can do it to us,” he said.

Photo credit: John J. Mike/U.S. Navy via Getty Images

Keith Johnson is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @KFJ_FP

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