The U.S. and China have come face-to-face once again on the issue of the South China Sea. Tensions between the two countries are rising as a result of Washington’s decision to deploy a U.S. Navy warship to a region that Beijing insists is a part of Chinese territory.
U.S. Sends Ship Into South China Sea, Ruffles Feathers
On Tuesday, October 27, 2015 the U.S. Navy deployed the USS Lassen into the 12-nautical mile boundary of some islands in the Subi Reef. China claims this region to be a part of it sovereign territory and so, Beijing views the deployment of a U.S. Navy warship in the area as a strong violation of its territorial integrity.
The U.S. Navy guided missile destroyer was ordered into the region prior to U.S. Secretary of Defence Ashton Carter’s visit to the USS Theodore Roosevelt, also operating in the region. The fact that the U.S. chose a warship and not any ordinary seafaring vessel to conduct a run-of-the-mill surveillance operation has sent a strong message to China.
While Washington has advised China against its land reclamation projects and island building in the South China Sea over the last two years, the recent naval mission is the first example of the U.S. adopting a strong military position on the matter. As such, it has been interpreted as a powerful warning to Beijing that the U.S. will not condone indiscriminate territorial assertions in the South China Sea.
China has announced its sovereign rights over much of the South China Sea, and the state has singlehandedly claimed more territory in the last two years alone than all the other disputants have, put together, over the last forty years.
Beijing: U.S. Has “Harmed Mutual Trust” With South China Sea Patrol
China has not taken kindly to the U.S. ship’s presence in what it views to be its maritime territory. China has expressed its disappointment at the U.S.’ decision to send in a naval craft, stating that Washington has “harmed mutual trust” in doing so.
Admiral Wu Shengli, Commander of the People’s Liberation Army Navy, has allegedly conveyed this sentiment to his American counterpart, Admiral John Richardson, in a video teleconference following the incident. The Chinese official is reported to have said, “(I) hope the U.S. side cherishes the good situation between the Chinese and U.S. navies that has not come easily and avoids these kinds of incidents from happening again”. Admiral Wu Shengli has supposedly warned the U.S. against pursuing similar maneuvers in the future, saying, “If the United States continues with these kinds of dangerous, provocative acts, there could well be a seriously pressing situation between frontline forces from both sides on the sea and in the air, or even a minor incident that sparks war.”
The Foreign Ministry of China issued a statement to the same effect, castigating the U.S. for undertaking maneuvers that “threatened China’s sovereignty and security interest, and has put the safety of personnel” to risk.
Wang Yi, the Foreign Minister of China, has also spoken to his American colleague, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, on the matter. Mr. Wang Yi has reportedly claimed, “The acts by the U.S. naval vessel in the South China Sea harmed mutual trust and provoked regional tensions. China is extremely concerned by this”. Revisiting China’s position that the U.S. should not interfere in the regional dispute that is the South China Sea issue, the minister said, “The U.S. side should return as soon as possible to the correct path of appropriately managing disputes via dialogue and consultation.”
Chinese Warship Trails USS Lassen
U.S. Navy officials aboard the USS Lassen revealed that a Chinese destroyer ship trailed the American vessel for much of its journey through the South China Sea.
The Commander of the USS Lassen, Robert Francis, shared that the Chinese craft tracked the U.S. Navy ship for a period of ten days, preceding and following the Spratly Islands patrol on 27th October. According to Commander Francis, the American ship conducted its patrol as close as six to seven nautical miles of a Chinese outpost in the South China Sea.
The Chinese destroyer contacted Commander Francis’ crew as soon the USS Lassen broke into the 12-nautical mile limit of one of China’s islands in the Spratly archipelago, asking, “Hey, you are in Chinese waters. What is your intention?”
Commander Francis, in conversation with the media aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt, said that the U.S. Navy crew responded to the Chinese enquiry by sharing that they planned to conduct a sail-past through the waters, in keeping with international law and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
Upon informing the Chinese crew of their intention to conduct regular ‘freedom of navigation’ operations in the area, the American crew was simply asked the same question again, repeatedly. Commander Francis shared that the exchange continued thus for a while.
Later in the week, U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter arrived at the USS Theodore Roosevelt to review the situation. Speaking from the aircraft carrier, Defense Secretary Carter asserted that China is responsible for the mounting hostilities and suspicion in the South China Sea dispute.
U.S, China Continue To Meet In The South China Sea
Run-ins between American and Chinese vessels in the South China Sea have become commonplace now, so much so that forces on either side have begun to view the encounters as a routine part of the patrol experience. Commander Francis said, “Every day a U.S. ship is down here, we interact with the Chinese”.
It is believed that the USS Lassen has had as many as 50 “interactions” with ships belonging to the Chinese Navy over the last few months. The USS Lassen has been patrolling through the South China Sea and the East China Sea since May 2015.
Washington Plans For Frequent South China Sea Patrols
The Pentagon has voiced an interest in conducting ‘freedom of navigation’ exercises in the South China Sea more often now. Following the 27th October tour, the U.S. Navy is likely to repeat the exercise twice every quarter and challenge the 12-nautical mile boundary of China’s other artificial islands.
Confirming the proposal, a U.S. defence official revealed, “We’re going to come down to about twice a quarter or a little more than that. That’s the right amount to make it regular but not a constant poke in the eye. It meets the intent to regularly exercise our rights under international law and remind the Chinese and others about our view.”
Naval security experts have stated that given the sheer size of the Chinese Coast Guard and PLA-N fleets stationed in the South China Sea, the U.S. Navy can expect more encounters if it plans to patrol the waters more frequently now.
Benjamin Rhodes, the U.S. Deputy National Security Adviser, has reiterated the U.S.’ dedication to ensuring that freedom of navigation is maintained in disputed waters all over the world. Addressing an audience at a gathering organized by the press outfit Defense One, Mr. Rhodes said, “That’s our interest there … It’s to demonstrate that we will uphold the principle of freedom of navigation”. Mr. Rhodes explained that the only way to bring the South China Sea dispute- and indeed, all territorial conflicts- to an end is to create a diplomatic solution that is viable for all concerned parties.
All Is Not Lost: U.S., China Prioritize Professionalism On The High Seas
Despite the recent spike in tensions at the political and diplomatic levels, insiders reveal that the exchanges between the Chinese and U.S. military crews are usually cordial, even friendly at times.
Commander Francis has said that the U.S. crews welcome and initiate conversations with their Chinese counterparts in a bid to bridge divides. Conflicts have a history of ‘othering’ the rival and almost dehumanizing them; by indulging in respectful and pleasant conversations, militaries can realize that they have a lot more in common than either side would have thought possible. Commander Francis explains that the idea of these exchanges is “to show them … that we’re normal sailors, just like them, have families, just like them.”
Referring to an example from a few weeks back, the official said that they’d recently contacted a Chinese ship that was trailing them. “(We) picked up the phone and just talked to him like, ‘Hey, what are you guys doing this Saturday? Oh, we got pizza and wings. What are you guys eating? Oh, we’re doing this. Hey, we’re planning for Halloween as well’.”
The Chinese crew reportedly responded in English and the two sides discussed their backgrounds, families and experiences. “They were very cordial the entire time … even before and after the Spratly islands
transit,” Commander Francis shared. According to him, when the Chinese ship ultimately moved away, its crew bid the USS Lassen farewell by saying, “Hey, we’re not going to be with you anymore. Wish you a pleasant voyage. Hope to see you again.”
Such exchanges are not out of the ordinary, if Commander Francis is to be believed. “It’s another day in the South China Sea. All of it is professional,” he explained.