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U.S. Warship Came Within 6 Miles of Chinese Artificial Island in Toughest Challenge Yet to Beijing South China Sea Claims

USS Dewey (DDG-105) transits the South China Sea on May 6, 2017. US Navy Photo

This post has been updated with additional information on the Dewey freedom of navigation operation.

A U.S. destroyer sailed within six nautical miles of a Chinese artificial island on Wednesday in the strongest challenge of hotly debated Chinese claims in the South China Sea, USNI News has learned.

Around 7 P.M. EST on Wednesday (7 A.M. Thursday local time), USS Dewey (DDG-105) passed within six nautical miles of the Chinese installation on Mischief Reef in the Spratly Island chain, several U.S. officials confirmed to USNI News

The guided-missile destroyer operated normally and did not conduct the transit under the rules of an innocent passage – the restrictions that allow a warship to pass through another country’s territorial waters with no notice.

The ship was within 12 nautical miles of Mischief Reef for about 90 minutes zig-zagging in the water near the installation. At one point during the operation, the ship’s crew conducted a man overboard drill, a U.S. official told USNI News.

The U.S. destroyer was shadowed by a Chinese frigate for the duration of the operation and was challenged by radio and warned to leave the vicinity by People’s Liberation Army units more than 20 times, USNI News has learned.

A PLA spokesperson told reporters on Thursday two PLA Navy frigates had “warned off” Dewey.

The operation is the first freedom of navigation operation (FON op) to challenge Chinese South China Sea claims during the Trump administration and the first in the region since USS Decatur (DDG-73) conducted a FON op against excessive Chinese claims in the Paracel Islands in October.

Mischief Reef in early 2016. CSIS Asian Maritime Transparency Initiative, DigitalGlobe Image

Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis would not confirm the U.S. had conducted the specific freedom of navigation operation when asked by USNI News on Thursday morning.

“We are continuing regular FON ops, as we have routinely done in the past and will continue to do in the future,” Davis told USNI News.
“Summaries of these operations will be released publicly in the annual FON ops report, and not sooner.”

However, Chinese officials quickly confirmed and condemned Dewey’s passage past Mischief Reef early Thursday.

“The USS Dewey missile destroyer entered the adjacent waters of the relevant islands and reefs in China’s Nansha [Spratly] Islands without the permission of the Chinese government. The Chinese navy legally identified and verified the U.S. vessel and warned it to leave,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang
“The relevant action of the U.S. vessel undermined China’s sovereignty and security interests and is highly likely to cause untoward incidents in the waters and airspace. China is strongly dissatisfied and firmly opposed to this.”

The character of the passage and location of the Dewey FON op sends an unambiguous challenge to Chinese claims of sovereignty for its artificial island installations.

Unlike other Chinese artificial islands in the South China Sea, the Mischief Reef installation isn’t subject to overlapping territorial claims from any other country and is built on a low-tide elevation, as determined by the 2016 Hague tribunal ruling on Chinese claims in the South China Sea.

Under the U.N. Law of the Sea Convention, a low-tide elevation cannot be claimed as the territory of any country and does not command a territorial sea.

“This is in my view the most significant of these [FON ops]. Not only does it challenge China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea, it shoehorns in a challenge to China’s claim of the feature,” James Kraska, a professor of international law, oceans law and policy at the U.S. Naval War College’s Stockton Center for the Study of International Law, told USNI News on Thursday.

“The rationale is if the U.S. doesn’t recognize innocent passage there’s no territorial sea, and if there is no territorial sea there is no ownership by China.”

Since the U.S. restarted regular FON ops in the South China Sea in late 2015, the missions tested holdings that were claimed by multiple countries and did not single out excessive Chinese claims.

Gregory Poling with the Center for Strategic and International Studies Asian Maritime Transparency Initiative told USNI News that Wednesday’s operation past Mischief is different.

“Mischief is the only Chinese-occupied feature without a territorial sea, so it’s the only one where a non-innocent passage FON op could challenge the actual status of the reef,” he said.
“The Dewey just sent a message that, as far as the U.S. is concerned, the Mischief Reef is an artificial island entitled to no maritime entitlements whatsoever. Now the question is whether we keep it up.”

USNI News understands that earlier this month the Office of the Secretary of Defense presented the National Security Council a schedule for future regional FON ops to create a menu of options for the NSC to choose from when U.S. assets are in the region.

An NSC spokeswoman provided USNI News a statement that did not acknowledge the FON op schedule.

Opportunities for South China Sea FON ops during the early part of the Carl Vinson Carrier Strike Group deployment in February were not acted on to allow the Pentagon time to develop a cohesive strategy for the region, several defense officials told USNI News over the last few months.

While the Wednesday operation was the first Trump administration-approved operation, U.S. ships and aircraft have been active in the South China Sea.

While U.S. warships and aircraft need White House approval to come within 12 nautical miles of a contested South China Sea feature for a planned FON op, U.S. ships have been routinely operating just outside the 12 nautical mile boundaries of Chinese claims for months.

  • Matt

    The CIA is back in the business of stealing secrets and the US Navy is back in the business of defending US interests on the high seas. This is wonderful news for those who cherish peace.

  • KillerClownfromOuterspace

    Possession in 9/10ths of the law. Unless you force removal, they might as well own it.

    • sferrin

      Which is why Obama was such a useless puke in this instance. He had plenty of opportunity to prevent China from grabbing the South China Sea and did SFA.

    • Stephen

      Unfortunate, but true. The Philippines needed to scream & we should have blocked the colliers before they dropped their loads well beyond China’s EEZ. They may have a claim to the Paracels; not the Spratlys…

    • wfraser11

      KillerClown. Those fake islands are blanketed with GPS target coordinates with permanent satellite coverage from above. If china starts anything, the sh”tstorm will be awesome to see. Unless you’re on one of those islands, in which case it will be a nightmare times ten.

      • KillerClownfromOuterspace

        But that’s never going to happen. They will squat on them for 100 years while partaking of the natural resources.

  • muzzleloader

    This is good, this is a start. Now it is time to send the entire Ronald Reagan CVBG through there as well. And the Carl Vinson group while it is in the region.

    • TransformerSWO

      And doing flight ops while passing through – just to make it very clear that this is not “innocent passage” – because these are international waters.

      • Ctrot

        And live fire drills.

  • sferrin

    China can whine until the cows come home. F–k ’em.

  • Dear Commies, This is what a real warship looks like.

    • Stephen

      I’m sorry, the Iowa-class is docked…

      • Marjus Plaku

        I get to see the USS New Jersey everytime I cross over the Delaware to go to work in the morning. Never a dull sight!

        • Stephen

          We cannot afford to build those ships, today. However, we could empty the hull, re-power & re-arm with modern equipment. Keep the big guns, nuclear propulsion & Aegis suite (BBGN). Imagine the VLS… That would be Zumwalt’s Sea Control Ship! (Oh, keep the LCS folks away!)

  • Chesapeakeguy

    This not about this subject. There was, or is actually, an article about the Navy’s practice of naming ships that just came out. It is about a report to the Congress on naming ships. However, it is closed to comments. The same author of this article wrote that one, I believe. Why would they not allow comments? Did they originally, and the discussion got out of hand? Anyone know?

    • publius_maximus_III

      Dear Chessie,

      I think you are referring to the article from two days ago, “Document: Report to Congress on Navy Ship Naming Conventions”? There were a total of zero comments made, and the comment section had a cryptic message, “This discussion has been closed…”

      Kinda hard to close something that was never open in the first place.

      I guess some potatoes are just too hot for the USNI News to handle, and this subject is definitely one of them. That was at least the third time that topic had come up in the past couple of years. After a new Oiler was named the Harvey Milk (which IMHO will be forever known as the “USS Vaseline”) under the new policy, all sorts of flack was hurled in the direction of the former CNO and SecNav for making such a politically correct decision.

      Regards,
      publius_maximus_III

      p.s. Read this quickly, ’cause da Sambo gonna probably strike it before the day is done. At least you will be able to read it in your email notification. Blessings.

      • Ctrot

        My suspicion was that comments were made, the discussion got hot and the mod deleted all comments and closed the comment section. Just my suspicion.

        • Chesapeakeguy

          I was wondering if that was what transpired. But I got on that link immediately, and the message was there about comments ‘being closed’. Just sayin’…

          • muzzleloader

            I was the one that originally inquired about the said articale and the comment section being closed. I have noticed that that posting is now gone. So I guess it truly is a verboten subject lol P.S. It is good to see that after 4 days, your last post is still up. Lol

      • Chesapeakeguy

        ‘USS Vaseline’. Now THAT’S funny..

        • publius_maximus_III

          Well all I can say is, if you’re about to get refueled by the V-lube, keep a wary eye astern. And that’s all I have to say about that.

  • The Plague

    Operating normally and no innocent passage? Now that’s beginning to look like something.

  • E1 Kabong

    Shoo troll.

  • wfraser11

    Muzzleloader. Now THAT would be one heck of a statement! The chinese propaganda sites would have a shrill week or so after that for sure.

    • muzzleloader

      Yes they would lol. It would be fun to watch.

  • Marjus Plaku

    I would keep this up so the Chinese feel enticed to deploy as many ships and aircraft on these sand castles as possible as they will be absolutely easy pickings early on in any conflict. And since we don’t recognize them as Chinese territory, we don’t have to worry about striking China proper.

    • publius_maximus_III

      A runway you could basically destroy with a torpedo is not much of a military asset.

  • Ed L

    Sounds like a job for the LCS. But really how can they make such claims on islands that are closer to vietnam, the PI, etc.

  • Ako Madamosiya 毛むくじゃら

    Now the next challenge to China’s Nine Dash Line should be to help the beleaguered Philippine Marines manning the BRP Sierra Madre in the Ayungin Shoal or Second Thomas Shoal. That’s upping up the ante.

  • John B. Morgen

    Get closer as possible, without running aground. Next time send in three destroyers and one cruiser, instead of sending one destroyer..

  • Marco LaCartouche

    Our World is but one big chess board whereas the superpowers and smaller countries keep striving for an edge over those countries they consider threatening.At some point,due to errors,miscalculations,or deliberately there will be missiles launched and hopefully there not nuclear !!