The new U.S. Chief of Naval Operations said potential U.S. Navy freedom of navigation missions in the South China Sea are not meant to provoke nations but rather “part of exercising international rights in international waters.”
Speaking to reporters in Japan on Thursday, CNO Adm. John Richardson said the missions “should not be a surprise to anybody” and “that we will exercise freedom of navigation through wherever international law will allow.”
He went on to say that freedom of navigation operations was a standard operation of any navy in any sea.
“I think that we have to continue to proceed in accordance with international norms,” Richardson said. Freedom of navigation missions are “part of routine navigation in international waters, consistent with international rules there: I don’t see how these could be interpreted as provocative in any way.”
A Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman tacitly agreed with Richardson’s basic tenets but also issued an implicit warning to the U.S. to stay away from its rapidly growing artificial islands.
“The Chinese side always respects and stands up for the freedom of navigation and over-flight in the South China Sea and other major international passages all countries are entitled to under international law,” said spokeswoman Hua Chunying.
“However, we firmly oppose any country using the freedom of navigation and over-flight as an excuse to undermine other countries’ sovereignty and security. We urge the U.S. side to work with China and play a responsible and constructive role in maintaining peace and stability of the South China Sea.”
China is continuing a massive and rapid campaign of turning small coral outcroppings in the Spratly and Paracel islands into artificial islands capable of supporting embarked military ships and aircraft.
The reclamation projects are practical expressions of China’s long-held and persistent assertion they control the majority of the South China Sea — an assertion the U.S. and at least several border nations dispute.
The U.S. does not recognize the new artificial islands as sovereign Chinese territory and has weighed sending a freedom of navigation mission within 12 nautical miles of the features for months.
On Thursday, the Chinese state controlled (and sanctioned) Global Times issued an editorial that called for China to respond militarily if “the U.S. side’s warships and planes to behave unscrupulously near islands and reefs reclaimed by China and in skies overhead and challenge China’s bottom line.”
The ultimate decision to send a U.S. ship or aircraft within the 12 nautical mile limit rests with the White House. The administration has reportedly been weighing the option in the last several weeks following a Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) surface action group’s own freedom of navigation mission off the coast of Alaska.
Several reports in the last several weeks of the Navy preparing for the mission were downplayed by the White House and the Pentagon.
Earlier this week Secretary of Defense Ash Carter told reporters “the United States will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows, as we do around the world, and the South China Sea will not be an exception… We will do that in the time and places of our choosing.”
The Navy currently has a Japan-based guided missile destroyer — USS Lassen (DDG-82) — operating in the South China Sea, according to a report in Navy Times. The Singapore-based littoral combat ship USS Fort Worth (LCS-3) has also recently operated in the region.