President Xi Jinping of China is faced with a dilemma on how to respond to a US Navy vessel’s patrol close to two reefs controlled by China in the disputed South China Sea, Ding Shuh-fan, director of the Institute of International Relations of National Chengchi University in Taipei said Tuesday.
The USS Lassen sailed to waters within the 12 nautical mile territorial limit claimed by China around the artificial islands China has built on Subi and Mischief reefs earlier in the day in a challenge to China’s territorial claims to uphold freedom of navigation.
Ding said both China and the US will maintain their “fight without breaking” strategy, meaning exercising self-constraint to avoid further escalation of tensions while continuing to compete with each other.
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Ding said the US is fully justified in its action based on legal principles as the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea states that foreign vessels, both military and civilian, are allowed innocent passage through territorial waters.
By deploying a vessel within 12 nautical miles of the two reefs, the US means to “deny China’s claim of sovereignty over the waters,” Ding said, adding that Washington would accuse Beijing of violating international law if China takes any move to intercept the US vessel.
If China fails to react strongly, it would mean that Xi accepts the international law, but that would unavoidably cause domestic doubts about Xi’s leadership in foreign affairs, making it very difficult to face domestic hawks like the PLA general Luo Yuan, who has said that China must deal heavy blows to those who break through the battle lines of the country’s national interests.
Ding said that to some extent, the rise of Chinese nationalism has placed China and the rest of the world in a perilous situation, and it would substantiate the “China threat thesis” if Chinese vessels were sent to confront or collide with US ships.
The USS Lassen, a guided-missile destroyer based in Yokosuka, Japan, has left the waters without encountering any Chinese military action.
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