U.S. Warship Sails Near Disputed Island In South China Sea, Challenging China Claim

An American warship sailed within 12 nautical miles (22 km) of a disputed island in the South China Sea on Tuesday, causing China to scramble fighters and dispatch its own ships in response.

The William P. Lawrence, a guided missile destroyer for the U.S. Navy, traveled within short distance of the disputed Fiery Cross Reef, where China has built a 700-acre artificial island and a 10,000-foot airstrip in the last 18 months. Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, 12 nautical miles is the furthest out a nation’s rule can extend from land. The operation was intended to show U.S. opposition to Chinese attempts to restrict naval passage through the strategic waterway.

“USS William P. Lawrence exercised the right of innocent passage while transiting inside 12 nautical miles of Fiery Cross Reef, a high-tide feature that is occupied by China, but also claimed by the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam,” the Pentagon said in a statement quoted by CNN, which stressed the disputed nature of the territory. “This operation challenged attempts by China, Taiwan, and Vietnam to restrict navigation rights around the features they claim… contrary to international law.”

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The move predictably sparked outrage from Beijing, who scrambled two J-11 fighter jets, a Y-8 warning aircraft and three warships that followed the U.S. destroyer, ordering it to leave a dozen times by radio. The Pentagon statement said that the United States did not inform China or any of the other countries involved ahead of time of the destroyer’s planned transit. China denounced the move as a provocation and an illegal threat to peace which only showed that its defense structures were necessary.

“This action by the U.S. side threatened China’s sovereignty and security interests, endangered the staff and facilities on the reef, and damaged regional peace and stability,” said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang, according to Reuters.

The “freedom of navigation” operation came at a time when tensions in the region are escalating, ahead of U.N. arbitration ruling on whether the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has the right to claim the island and the territorial waters surrounding it, which would allow China to claim marine resources, such as fish, oil, and gas up to 200 nautical miles from its shores, in what are called exclusive economic zones. according to the U.N. Convention on the sea.

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While China, Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines have ratified the treaty, the U.S. has not, as Republican senators in Congress blocked the ratification, saying it undermines U.S. freedom of maritime operations in the region. As a consequence, China asserts the right to monitor troops and naval movements around reefs and atolls in the South China Sea, while the U.S. disputes that right, as Reuters reported.

“China and the United States have traded accusations of militarizing the South China Sea as China undertakes large-scale land reclamation and construction on disputed features while the United States has increased its patrols and exercises.”

Both powers have accused each other of militarizing the sea, and the U.S. has been challenging China’s claim with naval and air operations even as it calls for a diplomatic solution, further escalating tensions, as the New York Times notes.

“The United States operation was carried out to demonstrate the right of freedom of navigation, the Pentagon said. Taiwan and Vietnam also claim Fiery Cross Reef, and like China, require prior notice for navigation within the 12-mile zone, the statement said. The Philippines, also a claimant to Fiery Cross Reef, makes no such demands, the Pentagon said. As an indication of the mounting tensions, China’s military said that it was conducting exercises in the South China Sea this week with warships, submarines, aircraft and troops from the garrisons in the Spratly archipelago and the Paracel Islands.”

The ruling on the U.N. arbitration brought forward by the Philippines, a long-time U.S. ally, is expected to be announced in the coming weeks. Over $5 trillion in trade passes through the South China Sea every year. China, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam all have claims in the region.

[Photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Todd Frantom/U.S. Navy via Getty Images]