by Austin Bay
October 27, 2015
On Oct. 26 East Asia watched with great interest as a U.S. Navy guided missile destroyer, USS Lassen, patrolled disputed waters in the South China Sea.
The Lassen's 72-mile cruise was a calculated and overdue act of muscular diplomacy intended to warn China that its destabilizing South China Sea territorial expansion policy will not be tolerated by the U.S. and its Asian allies.
U.S. aircraft monitored Lassen's voyage. Two Chinese naval vessels (the missile destroyer Lanzhou and patrol boat Taizhou) shadowed the American ship. When Lassen slipped within 12 nautical miles of the Chinese installation on Subi Reef (Spratly Islands), Chinese officers warned the U.S. vessel that it had violated Chinese territorial waters.
Diplomats quickly turned up the rhetorical heat. China called Lassen's cruise a "deliberate provocation." Its Foreign Ministry summoned the U.S. ambassador to China and told him America must quit "threatening Chinese sovereignty and security interests ..."
Provocation, however, is Beijing's game. China claims most of the South China Sea, though its claims are far weaker than those of Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia.
However, China intends to make its claims concrete, literally. China takes what geographers call "sea features" (eg., submerged reefs or rocks). Features don't rate as territory, not according to traditional maritime law or the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea.
Law does not deter China's maritime imperialists. Beijing dispatches construction crews, which add acres of concrete braced by steel. The features are transformed into artificial islets large enough to support airfields for combat aircraft as well as hangars and warehouses.
Now comes the map re-maker's coup de grace: Beijing diplomats declare the manufactured islets to be sovereign Chinese land complete with 12 miles of territorial water. Sorry world, you can't sail through here without Beijing's permission. This pile of concrete is as much China as Shanghai.
The U.S. disagrees. So do China's Southeast Asian neighbors, with the kowtowing exception of Cambodia, hence Lassen's Freedom of Navigation Operation, a FONOP in Pentagonese.
The USN FONOPS demonstrate by presence and action U.S. commitment to freedom of navigation. It has long been American policy to actively oppose maritime territorial claims, which intrude on recognized international shipping lanes. In 2014 the U.S. challenged 19 such claims by six different countries -- China, Iran, Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela and (ironically) the Philippines.
Manila did not object to Lassen's FONOP. China's island construction program has encroached on Vietnamese and Filipino territory. China can bully Vietnam and the Philippines, but the U.S. is a much stronger opponent. Manila has encouraged US action in the region.
In May 2014 China and Vietnam squared off over a Chinese oil-drilling project in Vietnamese waters. Vietnam saw the expedition as another small step toward extending Chinese sovereignty to the "nine-dash line." The nine-dash line maritime boundary China claims includes most of the South China Sea. It dips south for hundreds of kilometers from China's southern coast to near the island of Borneo.
Four or five years ago the U.S. began telling China, softly, that its island adventures had gone too far. China paid no heed. In May 2015, at a defense conference in Singapore, U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter said that China's expansionary policy would have consequences. The region's security architecture "must respect rights, and not just might ..."
China claimed Carter's comments were provocative. In September 2015 President Barack Obama met informally with Chinese President Xi Jinping, and China's South China Sea shenanigans were discussed. Xi apparently rejected Obama's bid to find a diplomatic solution.
Now the Lassen has sailed. Following the voyage, the Pentagon announced that the U.S. Navy would conduct similar patrols in the area.