The U.S. naval mission in the South China Sea that aroused angry protests from Beijing was intended to show clearly that the United States will exercise the right of naval passage near the artificial islands China is building in those disputed waters, analysts and U.S. officials said Tuesday.
China contends it can order warships such as the USS Lassen, the destroyer that sailed near Subi Reef in the Spratly archipelago, not to enter territorial waters extending 12 nautical miles (20 kilometers) from the islands it has occupied.
U.S. military officials say there will be more American naval operations in the South China Sea in the future.
The United States noted that the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea does not prohibit military vessels from territorial waters if they are operate under freely accepted freedom-of-navigation principles, as the U.S. vessel did this week, and that the South China Sea incident did not depart from those norms.
In a comparable situation just two months ago, there was no U.S. protest when China sent five warships through the Aleutian Islands chain extending from Alaska, at a time when President Barack Obama was presiding over an international conference in the same state.
“There was no protest,” maritime law expert John Oliver told VOA, “because the United States viewed that a right-of-transit passage” by the Chinese. China’s condemnation of what it called a “deliberate provocation” by the U.S. was “overreaction,” he added.