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U.S. Warship Sails Past Disputed South China Sea Artificial Island in Freedom of Navigation Mission

Guided-missile destroyer USS Mustin (DDG-89) transits the Philippine Sea on March 14, 2018. US Navy photo.

This post has been updated to indicate that the freedom of navigation operation past Mischief Reef was the second, not the first FON op this year. A January mission past Scarborough Shoal was considered a freedom of navigation operation.

A U.S. guided-missile destroyer conducted a freedom of navigation operation past an artificial island controlled by China on Friday, a U.S. defense official confirmed to USNI News.

USS Mustin (DDG-89) came within 12 nautical miles of Mischief Reef, an artificial island in the Spratly Island chain that is home to a major airfield, and conducted maneuvers near the Chinese base. Newswire Reuters first reported the operation on Friday.

“China holds indisputable sovereignty over the islands and their surrounding waters in the South China Sea,” defense ministry spokesman Ren Guoqiang said in a statement via CNN.
“By repeatedly sending military ships into these areas without authorization, the U.S. has seriously harmed Chinese sovereignty and security, violated basic rules of international relations, and harmed regional peace and stability.”

China claimed two People’s Liberation Army Navy frigates warded off the U.S. destroyer.

In a statement that did not acknowledge details of the operation, the U.S. Pacific Fleet said it conducts operations within the bounds of international law.

“All operations are designed in accordance with international law and demonstrate that the United States will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows. We conduct routine and regular Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs), as we have done in the past and will continue to do in the future,” read a statement from Lt. Cmdr. Nicole Schwegman provided to USNI News.
“FONOPs are not about any one country, nor are they about making political statements. The United States takes a strong position on protecting the rights, freedoms and lawful uses of the sea and airspace guaranteed to all countries and that all maritime claims must comply with international law as reflected in the Law of the Sea Convention.”

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

Of the artificial islands Beijing has built in the South China Sea, an operation past Mischief Reef sends the least ambiguous challenge to China’s claims in the region. The installation is built on a low tide elevation – a feature that is underwater at high tide – and under the U.N. Law of the Sea Convention doesn’t command a territorial sea. Though not specified by the official, previous missions past Mischief Reef have specifically challenged China claim of a territorial sea for the feature.

The last known challenge to Mischief occurred in August by guided-missile destroyer USS John S. McCain (DDG-56). In May, USS Dewey (DDG-105) came within six nautical miles of the base on Mischief Reef and spent 90 minutes within 12 nautical miles of the base.

USNI News understands this freedom of navigation mission is the second known FON op for the U.S. Navy in 2018. A January presence mission in which USS Hopper (DDG-70) operated near the Chinese-claimed Scarborough Shoal off the Philippines was part of the freedom of navigation program, a defense official confirmed to USNI News on Friday.

  • MayingaStrain

    For this to be anything other than a symbolic act of defiance, more than one vessel needs to be used and they need to stay in the area for an extended period of time. Briefly sailing through an area China falsely claims as its sovereign territory while irritating, does little to challenge the reality of Its seizure of international waters.

    • Duane

      What do suggest we do instead? Bomb it to smithereens?

      Sheesh! The fact that the Chinese built the installation in the first place was a symbolic act. In the event of a real shooting war with China, this installation will be a smoking hole in the ocean within the opening hours.

      • ABM1

        maybe the chinese will be so kind as to allow our poor little LCS to dry dock there. Heck, that’s a better idea than towing a dry dock everywhere the LCS goes.

        • ShermansWar

          Ouch.

          do we do that?

          • Only in the fantasies of the LCS-haters.

          • El Kabong

            How’s your Little Crappy Ship doing in Montreal?

            Stopped by frozen water… LOL!

        • Rocco

          Lol

      • muzzleloader

        Can imagine what a Category 5 Typhoon would do to it?

    • bulldog4857

      That China objected is good enough. The Navy is building a case against China over time showing that China thinks its rights are being infringed but does nothing to defend.

      • MayingaStrain

        A case for what? China’s claims have already been adjudicated as baseless.

        • bulldog4857

          The illegality of the artificial islands is between China and the nations who claim EEZ encompassing those. No other nation complained about the transit(s). If China prevails in ownership dispute then the Navy needs the evidence to prosecute a case in the International Court of Justice (not ITLOS or PCA). In addition to the excessive territorial sea claimed on the artificial islands (12 nautical miles) there is the issue of illegal baselines in the Paracels which was not addressed by the Philippines.

    • ShermansWar

      And how are you proposing we change the reality of the situation? By going to war with China?

      • MayingaStrain

        Actually, as the areas China is now claiming as its “historical sovereign territory,” are international waters, a large group of countries each of which should contribute at least one naval vessel, should arrange for a flotilla composed of ships from each nation to be stationed less than a mile offshore of these reclaimed islands. China would then be required to choose between waging war on a group of countries or abandoning the effort to seize the South China Sea. The choice is either confront China now or wait until after it becomes a genuine naval threat and begins making even greater demands based upon its imagined ‘territorial integrity.”

    • publius_maximus_III

      Does seem like whistling as you hurry past the graveyard. As Crocodile Dundee would have put it, “That ere ain’t no challenge. Holding a RIMPAC ’round it, now that ere’s a challenge.”

      • MayingaStrain

        I agree. But until China is really challenged, there is no cost to its effort to exclude everyone else from what are clearly international waters.

    • SDW

      It is legally valid this way and we are a country based on the rule of law. If, at some time, it becomes a formal court claim we will have the history to support our assertion of rights of passage and recognition of what are sovereign territory and waters and what are not.

  • WhiskyTangoFoxtrot

    Today, US Navy sails ‘warship’ past chinese man-made islands. china huffs and puffs, issues press release demanding recognition of ancient territory, cease of warmongering, etc blah blah blah. Tomorrow, US Navy sail LCS past same man-made island. chinese response, “we saw no warships today, brahahahahaha.”

  • bulldog4857

    Poor reporting misleads the public on this issue. The US Navy action does nothing to take sides in the sovereignty dispute over Mischief Reef. Rather the issue is that UNCLOS does NOT award territorial sea of 12 nautical miles to any artificial island. That that the island is built in what the Permanent Court of Arbitration decided is another country’s EEZ , and hence illegal under UNCLOS, is not an issue for the US to challenge. Further, at issue is China’s demand that permission be granted to make what it considers an innocent passage within 12 miles of territory but UNCLOS has no such requirement. China continues to use UNCLOS as toilet paper. This is the real issue.

    • Niki Ptt

      You mean the UNCLOS Treaty the US Congress never ratified?

      • Graeme Rymill

        you mean the UNCLOS Treaty that China ratified?

        • incredulous1

          When China ratifies a treaty, it means nothing and has not for a really long time, which I would call modern times. Witness the Treaty of Shimonoseki in April 1895. And there is no recognizable legitimate reasoning for their current 9-dash line which claim has changed from time to time, but gives rise to today’s erroneous claims.

      • bulldog4857

        Firstly the US need not ratify UNCLOS to legally sail in conformance with certain provisions thereof. Namely the right to sail on high-seas, innocent passage and strait passage are specifically afforded bu the convention to ALL STATES, not just party states. Party states are bound to honor those regimes for ALL STATES. Secondly when UNCLOS is mentioned it is assumed to mean UNCLOS III which the US has not ratified. However, the US and China both did ratify UNCLOS I in 1964. The major difference between the two was the specification of widths of maritime zones like the territorial zone at 12 nautical miles and introducing the exclusive economic zone. Much of the language is the same between the 1958 original and the 1984 version.

    • Duane

      No, actually the USA IS taking sides in the dispute by maintaining that these are international waters and that therefore no nation can deposit some fill on a reef and declare it sovereign soil. That is the very opposite of the PRC claim. And we are proving our determination to treat these waters as international waters by conducting fonops.

      There is nothing wrong about the reporting here.

      • SDW

        The US is not “taking sides” in the disputes between the PRC and the Philippines, the PRC and Brunei, the PRC and Viet Nam, the PRC and Japan, the PRC and Malaysia… (you see a pattern here?) We do this in a consistent manner not just for ourselves but all countries of the world (including the land-locked ones). For example, we navigate through the Arctic Northwest Passage without the explicit prior approval of our Canadian brothers because the USA (and the European Union) don’t recognize their claim that they are inland waters not a strait through which commercial and naval ships may transit without messing around. We don’t take sides and neither do we conduct FON operations just to make a political point. We don’t recognize the PRC’s sovereignty over what is not a true island no less 12 miles out from these shoals. We claim a lawful right and maintain that claim by regularly exercising it. It is an example of “Use It or Lose It” for any country claiming a right. (We step on toes but we try not to stomp.)

    • incredulous1

      Both right if you ask me. The big picture issue is that China, regardless of how they came to acquire or fabricate these islands, is that they have no sovereign rights to defend there as they claim. Therefore, we no longer help China by remaining at the 12 mile or beyond limit they seek to impose. Going well inside and or conducting air operations, drills or loitering or maneuvering would be a violation of sovereignty IF it were recognized by those conducting such ops. So now we prove to the world with each FONOP that China has no right of claim there. I look forward to the day when we demand that China leaves those artificial islands far from their EEZ and pay for remedial cleanup to restore the fishing habitats.

      • Rocco

        A big neon sign would make it official!!

  • Chesapeakeguy

    I do hope that when they sail these ships on these kinds of missions, they have some real backup that can get there within a few minutes.

    • Chief Hinshaw

      AEGIS destroyers dont really need to much backup.

      • Chesapeakeguy

        I’ll wager the ChiComs see them coming from some distance. If THEY ever decide to act, they will undoubtedly have a LOT on hand. There’s no ‘exclusion zone’ around any ship that I’m aware of in peace time, so getting up close is probably not a problem for them. While a ‘Pueblo Incident’ involving the capture of a warship like a Burke is unlikely, a more direct attack might at some time in the future be viewed as more advantageous. I just want our folks prepared and protected..

        • Rocco

          I could see a Burke DD that’s alone get surrounded & eventually get boarded if it pressed getting to close.

          • Todd

            arrrgh, prepare to be boarded you scabby dogs (but say it with a chinese accent)

          • SDW

            I don’t think that is a particular worry on the part of the DDG’s captain. He didn’t, after all, choose his course on a whim. Hostile intent is manifested by more than just sailing close by and the DDG’s Rules of Engagement are well understood. It is also part of a fleet even if they are over the (radar) horizon. The Pueblo and Liberty were travesties not likely to be repeated.

          • Rocco

            Difference between you & me

          • SDW

            At that we both are sighing in relief. 😉

          • Rocco

            The Dewey was just on the news tonight!

          • SDW

            For the FON op or for WESTPAC jollies? I don’t think their touristing is going to include a stop in Hong Kong.

  • OSC

    I have not read all of the previous posts. So forgive me if I repeat anything. In my mind staying 12 miles from a disputed territorial claim in of itself is an actual acknowledgment of that sovereignty. I know islands rules are different and navigational constraints always overule rights of passage.

    • Rocco

      I disagree!!!

  • Lapu Lapu

    It high time for regime change in north korea. And, plainly and honestly the liberation of the good chinese people from the ccp.

  • Rocco

    No it’s called clicking there heels!!! Follow the yellow brick road!!!

  • El Kabong

    How’s your Little Crappy Ship doing in Montreal, Duaney?

    Stopped by frozen water… LOL!

    • Duane

      As are all ships when the St. Lawrence is shut down for the winter by the Canadian authorities.

      And your point is?

      • El Kabong

        LOL!

        But you say the Little Crappy Ship is “super-duper”!

      • Dan O’Brian

        fyi, for the Internet challenged, commercial traffic never stopped once, but the poor poor wee crappy ship was too ‘scared’ to go anywhere (actually the whole “we’re iced in” thing is nothing but a cover-up for their massive engineering fault, they needed extra time to pull and replace components, and the “ice” story was convenient cover), no go cry a river, because the truth does hurt.

        • Duane

          no the Canadian government shut down the St Lawrence. Take your conspiracy theories elsewhere

        • Duane

          Per the website of the Great Lakes St. Lawrence Seaway System (i.e., the operator of the Seaway):

          “The St. Lawrence Seaway navigation season generally extends from late March to late December.”

          What part of that statement in English is beyond your comprension?

          Indeed, this past winter was particularly brutal, with one freighter getting frozen in to the lock system, and actually delayed the closing of the Seaway this winter until the operators were able to unfreeze the ship and get it underway to evacuate the Seaway.

          Facts are such stubborn things when confronted with slavish devotion to propaganda

  • old guy

    B.S. Tell me when they land with a group from the Phillipenes or Vietnam that claims ownership. ‘Til then its just headline grabbing.

  • incredulous1

    They really odd thing about this, regardless of legal language of the UNCLOS, is that CHINA has the least claim to any of these features since their actual sovereign territory and legit EEZ is THE FARTHEST AWAY of any of the other claimants to these islands and features. The time to have done something about this was when Obama was being “flexible” and actually helping Chairman Xi steal them. Obama wanted everyone to believe the lies China told about never militarizing them while we all watched them build RADAR installations, hangars, barracks, precision nav aids, defensive missile batteries, and high capacity munitions piers and storage facilities. Just how stupid did these people think we were?

  • obijohn

    I don’t understand why we don’t just build a little docking facility on some unused part of the reef and declare it open to all nations. Then we can sit there sipping a cold one and wave to our Chinese friends across the lagoon.