China Lambasts ‘Illegal’ U.S. Operation in South China Sea

Washington sent a U.S. warship through a disputed waterway to show it wouldn’t respect China’s claims to disputed waters. Turns out Beijing didn’t really like that very much.


Chinese warships followed a U.S. destroyer sent to disputed islands in the South China Sea to assert the right to free navigation there, while Beijing warned Washington not to take further “provocative” steps that could further roil the unsettled region.

After weeks of internal debate in Washington, the Pentagon dispatched early Tuesday local time the guided missile destroyer USS Lassen to within 12 miles of Subi and Mischief Reefs, a pair of underwater atolls that China has transformed into artificial islands over the past year and which now host military-grade airstrips.The U.S. hadn’t sent a vessel that close to the disputed islands in three years.

Chinese warships were dispatched to warn off the American vessel during the operation, Beijing’s defense ministry said in a statement. U.S. officials confirmed that Chinese ships shadowed the Lassen during the operation, which lasted several hours. China said the operation damaged trust between the two nations. “We strongly urge the U.S. side to respect China’s national sovereignty and security concerns,” the ministry said, cautioning that the Chinese military “will take all necessary measures” to protect its national security.

In an answer to a reporter’s question, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi warned the United States “not to stir up trouble,” and Chinese state-owned media attacked the U.S. mission as a “provocative” and potentially dangerous game of “brinksmanship.” The Foreign Ministry summoned Max Baucus, the U.S. ambassador to China, on Tuesday to formally protest the operation, according to media reports and Chinese state television.

An editorial published by Xinhua, the official Chinese press agency, lambasted the U.S. sail-by.

“Such provocations threaten to worsen the already gaping deficit of mutual trust between Beijing and Washington, which stems partly from the latter’s frequent close-in air and sea surveillance and reconnaissance against China,” the editorial said.

Global Times, a state-owned newspaper, went further in its own editorial.

“In face of the U.S. harassment, Beijing should deal with Washington tactfully and prepare for the worst. This can convince the White House that China, despite its unwillingness, is not frightened to fight a war with the US in the region, and is determined to safeguard its national interests and dignity,” said the editorial.

The mission, which had been discussed in the media and national security circles for weeks, was welcomed by top U.S. lawmakers who have been urging the Obama administration to take a tougher stance against China’s land grab in one of the world’s most important waterways.

Sen. John McCain (R.-Ariz.), the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, called the operation “long overdue,” and called for more such missions in coming weeks.

“Going forward, Freedom of Navigation operations should not be sporadic spectacles to behold, but ordinary and consistent demonstrations of our nation’s commitment to uphold the freedom of the seas,” he said in a statement Tuesday.

Pentagon officials said Monday that additional freedom of navigation operations will be conducted in the near future, but declined to be more specific. The navy conducts that sort of operation dozens of times each year around the world, but usually in a low-key fashion. Navy officials admitted to Congress last month that they had not carried out the normally routine freedom of navigation operations next to the Chinese-claimed reefs, which drew heavy criticism from lawmakers.

Over the past year and a half, China has spent billions of dollars to turn submerged reefs and atolls in the South China Sea into artificial islands, where they have built large airfields and docking facilities. U.S. partners and allies in Asia have for months urged Washington to take a tougher stance against what is seen in the region as a Chinese land grab.

The Obama administration had begun weighing the patrols as early as May but had put off the move to allow time for a diplomatic effort to play out. The attempt to broker an agreement over the summer among countries in the region to halt reclamation work failed amid Chinese opposition. And any hope of a deal with Beijing fizzled after talks between Chinese President Xi Jinping and President Barack Obama last month failed to produce a breakthrough.

In November, 2013, China created an “air defense identification zone” over disputed islands in the East China Sea. Those islands, known as the Senkakus or Diaoyus, are claimed by both China and Japan. The United States immediately launched a pair of B-52 bombers to fly through and effectively challenge China’s right to fence off parts of the global commons.

NOTE: This article was updated Tuesday morning.

Photo credit: U.S. Navy

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

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