Battle over China’s artificial islands has just begun


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AFTER MONTHS of internal debate, the White House permitted the Defense Department to sail one ship near a reef in the South China Sea that China claims. The Chinese reaction shows Beijing has no intention of backing down. Now the Obama administration is debating what to do next.

The US government has a range of tools — diplomatic, economic and military — to push back against the Chinese strategy. The question is whether the US will use those tools effectively before China’s control of the South China Sea becomes a fait accompli. — AFP

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter confirmed on Tuesday that the Lassen, a US Navy guided missile destroyer, traveled on Monday within 12 miles of the Subi Reef, which was underwater until the Chinese government built it into an artificial island.

Under questioning from the Senate Armed Services Committee, Carter said the US has the right to operate near the Chinese structures. He expressed support for doing such a “freedom of navigation operation” again.

“What you read in the newspaper is accurate, but I don’t want to say when, whether or how we operate anywhere in the world,” he said. “These are operations that we should be conducting normally.”

Carter has publicly asserted US access to these waters since his speech in May at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore. Admiral Harry Harris, the head of Pacific Command, has advocated that right as well, within the administration. But other senior officials pushed to delay the sail-by, fearing it would provoke Beijing and hurt other areas of cooperation, US officials told me.


The White House decision to move forward came after several meetings at the National Security Council Principal Committee level, where the timing was a sticking point. White House officials wanted to wait until after President Obama’s summit last month with Chinese President Xi Jinping, during which Xi said publicly that China did not intend to militarize the artificial islands. Secretary of State John Kerry argued for delaying the operation until after the Paris Climate Change conference, US officials said. It ends in December.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry reacted swiftly on Tuesday, calling the US move a “deliberate provocation” and summoning the US ambassador to China, Max Baucus, to protest the action. The foreign ministry spokesperson said China might conclude it had to “increase and strengthen the building up of our relevant abilities.” The Chinese Defense Ministry said the ship’s activity was a “coercive action that seeks to militarize the South China Sea region.”

US officials told me on Tuesday that the Chinese reaction was as expected and that the Obama administration had publicly signaled for months that the freedom of navigation operation would take place. There is no expectation that one ship’s action will deter the Chinese expansion in the South China Sea. Instead there is a new internal debate over what the US should do next and when.

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