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.”