In this April 8, 2008, file photo, guided missile destroyer USS Lassen arrives at the Shanghai International Passenger Quay in Shanghai, China, for a scheduled port visit. The USS Lassen has sailed past one of China’s artificial islands in the South China Sea on Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2015, in a challenge to Chinese sovereignty claims that drew an angry protest from Beijing, which said the move damaged US-China relations and regional peace. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko, File)
BEIJING — Beijing reacted harshly to a US warship sailing near one of its newly created islands in a disputed area of the South China Sea. The action did not spark a confrontation or roll back any Chinese island-building activities, but it sent a high-profile message to both Beijing and US allies that Washington wants to test Chinese sovereignty assertions and ensure freedom of navigation.
Some questions and answers:
WHAT IS THE IMPACT?
As in previous incidents, Beijing is likely to voice its outrage for a time, before reasserting the wisdom of the government’s calculated approach to its crucial relationship with the US However, the testy reaction underlines tensions in the strategically vital region through which about one-third of global trade passes. Frictions are likely to worsen as Washington’s renewed focus on Asia rubs up against Beijing’s increasingly robust assertions of its claim to virtually the entire sea and its islands, reefs and atolls. China says its sovereignty claims do not conflict with the rights of other nations to operate in the South China Sea, although the Defense Ministry accused the US of abusing those rights.
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WHAT DID THE US NAVY DO?
The maneuver itself was relatively tame. The US Navy sailed the guided missile destroyer USS Lassen past an artificial island created on Subi Reef in the Spratly archipelago. The route was within a 12-nautical mile (22-kilometer) territorial limit that China might claim around the reef. However, international law permits “innocent passage” of warships through other countries’ territorial seas without any need for prior notification, and there was no indication the ship did anything other than pass through. Still, the US said ahead of the trip that it was aimed at challenging any Chinese claims that the newly created islands are its sovereign territory.
WHY DID THE NAVY ACT?
The sail-by was intended to reinforce Washington’s insistence on freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea, parts of which are claimed not only by China but by the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei. While the US says it takes no view on ownership claims, it insists that the man-made islands China has created do not constitute sovereign territory and cannot claim territorial seas. Until the legal status of South China Sea is settled once and for all, such incidents “will continue unabated,” said US Naval Academy China expert Yu Maochun.
HOW DID CHINA RESPOND?
China reacted angrily, saying the sail-by was illegal, that it infringed on Chinese sovereignty and that it threatened the security of the island and the region. It said the maneuver would affect China-US relations and summoned American Ambassador Max Baucus in Beijing for a high-level protest. It is unclear on what basis China claims the sail-by was illegal, partly because it has never clarified the basis of its claims to territory in the South China Sea. The Chinese response — limited so far only to rhetoric — suggests Beijing may tacitly acknowledges the freedom of navigation in the area, but does “not want the US to make a regular practice of it,” said Phillip Saunders, director of the US National Defense University’s Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs.