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U.S. Destroyer Comes Within 12 Nautical Miles of Chinese South China Sea Artificial Island, Beijing Threatens Response

USS Lassen (DDG-82) underway in the Philippine Sea in 2015. US Navy Photo

USS Lassen (DDG-82) underway in the Philippine Sea in 2015. US Navy Photo

After months of deliberation, the U.S. has sent a guided missile destroyer within 12 nautical miles of a Chinese artificial island in the South China Sea in a move that practically rejects Chinese claims to the reclaimed reefs and has inflamed Beijing.

Late Monday USS Lassen (DDG-82) came within 12 nautical miles of Subi Reef — off the western coast of the Philippines — on which the Chinese have built a weather monitoring station and other facilities, said the Chinese Foreign Ministry via a report in The Associated Press.

The Pentagon spokesman would not confirm the account to USNI News but said in a late Monday statement, “the United States is conducting routine operations in the South China Sea in accordance with international law. U.S. forces operate in the Asia-Pacific region on a daily basis, including in the South China Sea.”

For its part the Chinese Foreign Ministry has said the move by the U.S. was provocative and threatened a commensurate response to the mission.

“China will resolutely respond to any country’s deliberate provocations,” the Ministry said in a statement.
“The actions of the U.S. warship have threatened China’s sovereignty and security interests, jeopardized the safety of personnel and facilities on the reefs, and damaged regional peace and stability.”

While China has confirmed Lassen came within 12 nautical miles— the distance of a country’s internationally recognized maritime boundary — and was contacted via radio it’s unclear what the ship did while in proximity to the island.

There is a stipulation in international maritime law known as “innocent passage” in which a warship can transit within a country’s 12 nautical mile boundary legally but it must do so expeditiously and without conducting any military actions such as transmitting propaganda or radiating targeting radars.

An innocent passage around the features could be interpreted as an implied recognition of Chinese sovereignty of the artificial islands — of which the U.S. does not recognize.

However, given the reaction from the Chinese Foreign Ministry, the likelihood Lassen’s passage conformed to the “innocent passage” rules are low.

The move drew praise from Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.) chairman of the House Armed Services subcommittee on seapower and projection forces.

“The passage of U.S. vessels within 12 nautical miles of China’s man-made features in the South China Sea is a necessary and overdue response to China’s destabilizing behavior in the region,” read a statement provided to USNI News. “International law is clear that China has no legitimate claim to sovereignty over these waters, and it is high time that this administration reaffirmed America’s enduring commitment to freedom of navigation and the maintenance of peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region.”

While Chinese installations to support their extensive claims in the South China Sea are not new — for example Beijing has had small buildings installed on poles in the middle of the South China Sea for years — the pace and scale of which China has rushed to build the installations are unprecedented.

Airstrip construction on the Fiery Cross Reef in the South China Sea is pictured in this April 2, 2015.

Airstrip construction on the Fiery Cross Reef in the South China Sea is pictured in this April 2, 2015.

Since the last freedom of navigation mission the U.S. conducted within 12 nautical miles of Chinese claims in 2013, the Chinese have reclaimed hundreds of acres on bases in the Spratlys and the Paracels including constructing a 10,000 foot runway on Fiery Cross Reef that puts the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia within strike fighter range of the airfield.

China has repeatedly denied the installations are or will be militarized but U.S. officials have said that could easily change.

“If you look at all of these facilities — and you could imagine a network of missiles sites, runways for their fifth generation fighters and surveillance sites and all that — it creates a mechanism in which China would have de facto control over the South China Sea in any scenario short of war,” U.S. Pacific Command commander Adm. Harry Harris said before the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) last month.

While Lassen’s mission is the first freedom of navigation mission around the artificial features in several years, it is unlikely to be the last.

“This is something that will be a regular occurrence, not a one-off event,” a U.S. defense official told Reuters.
“It’s not something that’s unique to China.”

  • FedUpWithWelfareStates

    Interjecting ourselves into some other country’s problems once again. Why weren’t the SCS claimant countries out there showing the flag? Are we to perpetually waste our limited resources protecting these leaches forever?

    • silencedogoodreturns

      Freedom of the seas is protecting the US, not any “leaches” (leeches?)

    • sferrin

      Not too bright are you?

  • Curtis Conway

    Well, the Chinese are destroying the very environment upon which their fishing fleet depends, and destroying coral reefs (live rock) as well. Their fishing grounds are already going barren due to lack of management and over fishing. Now they are striking out and assuming control of waters in other countries EEZs (Economic Exclusion Zones) claiming ancient rights that go back before both world wars. The Chinese will not go to international arbitration as they encroach on other nations fishing grounds, most of which these small nations depend on them heavily for providing sustenance to their own populations. The Chinese fishing fleet now prowls the waters from the East Coast of Africa to Alaskan waters, and having a negative and unregulated impact on the Pacific and IO basins. This will eventually affect us all.

    So . . . YES we are injecting ourselves into the Freedom Of Navigation argument around artificially established sovereignty of islands they are BUILDING. If they win this argument, we should build some of our own with the help of their smaller neighbors who are less able to defend themselves. This whole equation is bullying on an international scale pure and simple. The Chinese have tried to muddy the waters with ancient rights and international law arguments that they WILL NOT argue in the International Court. Before they argue this in the International Court . . . they must first buy the judges.

    • PridebeforetheFall

      Amazing what a feckless foreign policy will allow.

  • EMS

    Two bits of good news; The Pentagon refused White House requests to send the Love Boat on this mission and it didn’t run aground on the reefs.

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  • Curtis

    Prior to the start of negotiations the CPC has insisted that all parties must first accept that the CPC has sovereignty over everything.

    The CPC does not claims the entire South China Sea as its sovereign territory.

    The CPC does claim every islands, reefs, shoals, cays, and other features in the entire South China Sea as its sovereign territory.

    The CPC claims that this gives it a 12 mile territorial limit and a 200 mile EEZ. The CPC’s interpretation of a territorial limit and EEZ is inconsistent with international law and norms.

    We have seen how the CPC actually treats it’s EEZ as the same as it’s 12 mile territorial limit. These, together with its claims of every islands, reefs, shoals, cays, and other features in the entire South China Sea as its sovereign territory, effectively makes Vietnam and Brunei landlocked countries. Additionally the Gulf of Thailand would be an inland sea and therefor Cambodia would also be landlocked. It would also isolate Singapore as international trade could be required to bypass the South China Sea and Malacca Strait and utilize the Timor, Banda, Molucca and East Philippine seas.

    It should be very clear to not just Vietnam , Brunei, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines but to the whole world that the dictatorship of Xi and the leadership of the CPC means to control all of South East Asia. These resent reclamation projects in the South China Sea are meant to establish military bases in the area that threaten not only Vietnam , Brunei, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and the Philippines but the stability of the Western Pacific. Everyone has seen that Agreements made by the CPC means nothing to them.

    The CPC agreed to the Declaration on the Code of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea and these reclamation projects are a clear violation of section 5.

    Section 5.

    The Parties undertake to exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability including, among others, refraining from action of inhabiting on the presently uninhabited islands, reefs, shoals, cays, and other features and to handle their differences in a constructive manner.

    Very soon the dictatorship of Xi and the leadership of the
    CPC will have several military bases in the South China Sea. From the above article

    It is clear that Xi and the leadership of the CPC means to control everything both economical and militarily in the South China Sea. This will happen very soon if they are not stopped NOW.

    What can be done?

    Clearly negotiations will not work because the CPC will not comply with any agreements they make.

    Clearly going to the UN will not work because the dictatorship of Xi and the leadership of the CPC has already said that they will not comply with any UN mandate.

    Clearly appeasement will not work because the dictatorship of Xi and the leadership of the CPC intends to control all of South East Asia and will stop at nothing until that is achieved. The dictatorship of Xi and the leadership of the CPC will continue its slow and methodical progression. Step by Step.

    So what should be done?

    1) Vietnam , Brunei, Malaysia, Indonesia, Taiwan and the Philippines should get together and divide up the South China Sea. As the CPC has refused multilateral negotiations, they need not be a party to them.

    2) Vietnam , Brunei, Malaysia, Indonesia, Taiwan and the Philippines should establish ADIZs that cover the South China Sea.

    3) Vietnam , Brunei, Malaysia, Indonesia, Taiwan and the Philippines should invite the US, Australia, Japan and India for training exercises in the South China Sea. This should be a large exercise. The US should sent 5 Amphibious Expeditionary Strike Groups and 5 Carrier Strike Groups. This configuration would have available up to 500 carrier strike aircraft, 5 carriers, 5 amphibious assault ships, 10 LSD and LPDs, 30 cruisers or destroyers, 10 submarines, 11,000 Amphibious Marines.

    4) At the same time the Philippines should resupply the personal located on Second Thomas Shoal.

    5) At the same time Vietnam , Brunei, Malaysia, Indonesia, Taiwan and the Philippines should stop all supplies from reaching all CPC reclamation projects in the South China Sea until the CPC withdraws all personal and equipment.

    6) At the same time Vietnam , Brunei, Malaysia, Indonesia, Taiwan and the Philippines together with the US, Australia, Japan and India should notify the CPC that any aggressive moves by the CPC will not be tolerated and will be dealt with.

    • Pam

      I believe you have covered it all , well said. It’s about time the world is awakening, the warnings have thus far gone unheeded.

  • silencedogoodreturns

    “within” or “inside” of 12nm? 12nm is still international waters. This is looking a little wimpy.

  • Don Bacon

    The US isn’t very good at public relations, here saying that this was simply a “routine operation” that nevertheless apparently required a presidential order resulting from a lot of Congressional blather from McCain, Forbes and company. This means that it wasn’t routine, everyone knows that, so China’s reaction might be to move some heavy weapons to an island, and then what. Another “innocent passage” and then more weapons and then more routine passages? In the South China Sea? Pass the popcorn.

    • sferrin

      Glad to see you take such delight in watching the South Pacific get rolled by the Chinese.

  • sferrin

    Told you they wouldn’t go inside 12 miles. There is no “Chinese sovereignty” and any and all claims should be utterly rejected and subsequently ignored. Should have floated them within two miles. And should continue to do this at every reclaimed “island”.

  • muzzleloader

    “Threatened China’s sovereignty? My a$$! The US should be sending the entire Ronald Reagan battle group within visual range of the “island”, and let the Chicoms fret and moan. The US along with all sea faring nations has to stand up to these thugs and put them in their place.

    • sferrin

      Never happen. China has the current occupant of the White House utterly and completely cowed.

    • Greg

      Freaking-A right.

    • Elapoides

      And you believe Obama & his regime would do that? Really? The only balls Obama has are those which are usually in his mouth, those of Putin.

    • John Wayne

      Are you going to volunteer to serve? The Chinese have a massive submarine force and 2 torpedoes can effectively render an Aircraft carrier useless.
      Never underestimate your enemy and a submarine is cheap hardware to take out a multi billion dollar ship.

  • cjleete

    “Ello China, just stopping by to say “NEENER NEENER”

  • disqus_zommBwspv9

    Sad thing this plan of reclaiming land on reefs most likely started around 1996

  • Tim

    I am sure Boeing $38 billion aircraft deal with China is in doubt.

    • jim

      They have a history of copying other country’s designs then knocking them out themselves, they already did that to Russia a couple times and undersold them after. It might be a good thing in the long.

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  • Tim

    Win-win outcomes: US has met his little brother’s wish and China shows the world his sovereignty over the islands.

  • Elapoides

    Why is it that China’s 5th generation fighter jets look surprisingly like the YF-23? And of course the obvious counterfeit of the F-35! Did Obama give them the blueprints like Clinton gave them the rocket tech to orbit satellites, hence also giving them the capability to launch ICBMs?

  • Jerry Nolan

    China can suck it. Subi Reef is 495 nautical miles from Hainan Island, the closest point of actual Chinese landmass. They have no legitimate claim to Subi or any of the other small islands in that vicinity. This is what happens when you have a limp-wristed poser in the White House and no consistent, forceful foreign policy anywhere in the world.

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