The Chinese government is strongly condemning the presence of a U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyer, the USS Lassen, in the South China Sea, as an “illegal entry.” American defense officials insist the ship navigated international waters, challenging China’s unilateral claims to sovereignty over the nearby Spratly Islands.
In a stern statement against the United States, the Chinese Foreign Ministry claimed the presence of the ship in the region— about 12 nautical miles away from the disputed Spratly Islands and an assortment of illegally constructed artificial Chinese islands— “has threatened China’s sovereignty and security interest, and has put the safety of personnel on the reefs in danger.”
The USS Lassen, defense officials told NBC News, passed through the region but did not engage in any activity. Nor did it meet any resistance from Chinese or other vessels, and no reports indicate it troubled any ships in the region. The Chinese government claims it sent ships to warn and pursue the USS Lassen, monitoring its behavior, but that the ships did not interact.
Despite the lack of interaction between the American ship and the Chinese ships allegedly trailing it, the Chinese government has made adamantly clear it does not wish to tolerate the presence of such vessels in the international waters it claims as its own.
“If any country thinks that, through some gimmicks, they will be able to interfere with or even prevent China from engaging in reasonable, legitimate and legal activities in its own territories, I want to suggest those countries give up such fantasy,” added ministry spokesman Lu Kang. Challenging claims that China wields sovereignty over the region will become a “self-fulfilling prophecy” in which China will begin acting even more as if the South China Sea were not international waters, Lu warned.
American officials have responded by noting that such occurrences from now on will become “routine,” and that China has no say in where American ships navigate. “We will fly, sail and operate anywhere in the world that international law allows,” a defense official told NBC News, adding, “U.S. Freedom of Navigation operations are global in scope and executed against a wide range of excessive maritime claims, irrespective of the coastal state advancing the excessive claim.”
The Spratly and Paracel Islands both lie in international waters in the South China Sea. Both regions are claimed by a number of countries, including China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Brunei. The Spratly region specifically is claimed as internationally shared waters by Vietnam. The Vietnamese government has accused China of sending aggressive military vessels to attack civilian fishermen and sink their ships if they approach too closely to the Spratly Islands and China’s manmade islands in the area. Last week, a Vietnamese fisherman claimed a Chinese ship slammed itself into his fishing boat until it sank, leaving him and his crew to float in the sea until rescued four hours later.
The government of the Philippines has made similar accusations against the government of China regarding the Paracel Islands. In June, Philippine President Benigno Aquino compared the Beijing government to Adolf Hitler and the South China Sea region to the Sudetenland.
Chinese state media has previously published articles claiming “war is inevitable” with the United States should American officials insist that the South China Sea lies in international waters. On Tuesday, state media outlet Xinhua published an aggressive editorial condemning America’s presence in the region again, calling the USS Lassen’s mission “a willful and harmful game of brinkmanship mounted to flex U.S. muscles at China’s doormat and reassert Washington’s dominant presence in the region.” “Such aggressive behavior is highly irresponsible and dangerous,” the column warns.
China expressed similar outrage in July as the United States flew a surveillance plane over Chinese artificial islands. Then as now, American officials asserted that such military activity would be “routine” and the United States has no plans to cancel similar missions.
Last week, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter also warned China to prepare for American vessels to transit in the South China Sea’s international waters. “The United States will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows,” he stated. “The South China Sea is not and will not be an exception.”