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U.S. South China Sea Freedom of Navigation Missions Included Passage Near Vietnamese, Philippine Claims

Sailors aboard the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Lassen (DDG-82) conduct a man-overboard drill on Sept. 28, 2015 in the South China Sea. US Navy Photo

Sailors aboard the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Lassen (DDG-82) conduct a man-overboard drill on Sept. 28, 2015 in the South China Sea. US Navy Photo

A recent U.S. Navy freedom of navigation mission in South China Sea was not limited to China’s artificial islands.

In addition to a Monday patrol within 12 nautical miles of Chinese installation on reclaimed land on Subi Reef, guided missile destroyer USS Lassen (DDG-82) also conducted similar freedom of navigation patrols of contested South China Sea holdings of the Philippines and Vietnam, according to a Tuesday report in Reuters.

Several sources confirmed the patrols to USNI News late Tuesday but it’s yet unclear which Vietnamese or Philippine features Lassen passed near as part of its mission.

What is clear is the reluctance of U.S. officials to acknowledge the missions publically.

Secretary of Defense Ash Carter confirmed Lassen’s mission after a persistent line of questioning during a Tuesday Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Middle East security from SASC chairman Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

“The news reports — all day — are about a U.S. destroyer, naming the destroyer, going within the 12 [nautical] mile zone around these islands. Why would you not confirm or deny that that happened. Since all the details… and the action happened?” asked McCain to Carter after the Secretary of Defense declined to confirm Tuesday press reports on the mission to Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska).

Carter eventually responded, “I won’t be coy with you, I don’t like in general the idea of commenting on our military operations but I can say but what you read in the newspaper is accurate but I don’t want to say more than that,” he said.

Likewise, a Pentagon spokesman would still not officially confirm the freedom of navigation operation occurred to USNI News as of Tuesday afternoon.

According to a late Tuesday report in The New York Times, instructions were issued by the White House to keep quiet about Lassen’s mission, quoting unnamed administration officials.

“The White House directed Department of Defense officials not to say anything publicly about the incident. No formal announcements or news releases alerting the media to the passage of the destroyer, [Lassen], were to go out, White House officials ordered,” wrote the paper.
“And if asked, officials were instructed not to speak on the record about the specific maneuver.”

For its part, China has not remained silent.

Within hours of news of the mission broke both the Chinese Foreign Ministry and People’s Liberation Army Navy issued statements condemning the passage as illegal and promised a commensurate response.

“Relevant authorities of the Chinese side monitored, followed and warned the U.S. vessel. Relevant actions by the U.S. naval vessel threatened China’s sovereignty and security interests, put the personnel and facilities on the islands and reefs at risk and endangered regional peace and stability. The Chinese side hereby expresses strong dissatisfaction and opposition,” read a Tuesday statement from Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Lu Kang.
“We will keep a close eye on what is happening in the relevant waters and airspace and take all necessary measures as needed.”

According to Reuters U.S. Ambassador to China Max Baucus was summoned to the Chinese Foreign Ministry and chided for the operation with Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Yesui calling it “extremely irresponsible.”

For its part, the U.S. has said repeatedly any freedom of navigation mission is not meant to provoke but is a normal part of naval operations for any country.

“I think that we have to continue to proceed in accordance with international norms,” Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson said in Japan earlier this month. 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.”

  • Hugh

    Typical Chinese – they do something against international rules and then blame others for not changing to suit. And besides, any vessel and aircraft can innocently transit recognised territorial waters, (not that these are recognised).

  • Curtis Conway

    From the physiological aspect the reaction of anyone to any given circumstance or action can tell you a lot about how the offended party thinks and how they understand the world. This REACTION by the Chinese tells you a lot about their thoughts on the disposition of the disputed waters, islands there in, and the islands they have built there in, and why the Chinese Will Not go to International Arbitration. They believe they own that part of the ocean . . . period! That is not what UNCLOS says, and the Chinese signed that agreement, convention, treaty . . . what ever you want to call it. The Chinese activities in this matter remind me so much of how lawyers quibble over details in the law (letter of the law) while real damage is being done, of which the Spirit of the law was written to protect. The Chinese want a ‘fait accompli’.

  • Curtis Conway

    What little experience with FONOPS was that the exercise of Freedom of Navigation IAW International Law was the goal. We did not announce it ahead of time, but we sure didn’t keep it a Secret there after, in fact the very opposite, otherwise why are you conducting the exercise? Who ever came up with that policy obviously has no experience in this business at least on the surface side of Naval Operations. The Russians and the Chinese have been pushing the envelopes on the air side of the equation with everyone’s airspace and it is intrusive, deliberate, and has breached numerous norms of operations in other countries ADIZ. Try that with the Russians and see what happens to you. They will shoot you down in International Airspace (Ukraine incident).

    • USNVO

      From my experience, you generally do not announce the action before hand because you don’t want to be seen as requiring to announce the action. Additionally, the navigational track is very scripted depending on the point you are trying to make. For instance, in Libya, the US was ignoring an excessive baseline claim, so just operating in the Gulf of Sidra was fine. I took part in a FON exercise off India that was to ignore a excessive claim of interal waters, so we basically did an innocent passage to show that while it was their waters, it was not their internal waters. I am not sure if they still do it but everytime we transited the Straits of Hormuz the Omani Coast Guard would read their script and the Navy would read their script. I would guess in this case the Lassen sailed around the island so there as no possibility of confusing with innocent passage. Ideally, you are attempting to invoke a response, and like you observed, you don’t hide the fact afterwards. I guess sailing past the Phillipines and Vietnamese Islands, which while in disagreement are not considered excessive, was supposed to somehow appease the Chinese. Obviously someone in the White House is an idiot, but then that isn’t much of a surprise.

      • Curtis Conway

        Amen, and thank you. I was in CIC, not on the Bridge.

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