On Tuesday the United States performed a freedom-of-navigation pass alongside China’s man-made islands in the South China Sea, angering Chinese officials. The Chinese have been using the islands as naval outposts.
The U.S. guided-missile destroyer, USS Lassen, sailed waters approximately 12 nautical miles from the islands, while being tailed by Chinese vessels.
The bases extend into international waters, allowing Chinese officials to claim the area as property of China.
China spent the better part of the last decade constructing the two military bases at Subi Reef and Mischief Reef in the artificial Spratly Islands, despite declaring that the government had no plans to militarize the islands themselves.
"U.S. Freedom of Navigation operations are global in scope and executed against a wide range of excessive maritime claims, irrespective of the coastal state advancing the excessive claim," said one defense official.
Greg Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies said that the operation “forces a clarification of China's claims. China's strategy in the South China Sea is one of ambiguity."
China’s Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Yesui contacted the United States ambassador Max Baucus in order to protest the operations. Yesui referred to the operations as “extremely irresponsible” and “illegal.”
Ian Storey, a Lecturer on Social Studies at the Institute of South East Asian Studies, states that "by using a guided-missile destroyer, rather than smaller vessels ... they are sending a strong message.”
Challenges to China’s Militarization
It should also be noted that Chinese vessels sailed within 12-nautical-miles of Aleutian Island (U.S. territory) only a few weeks prior to the U.S. joining the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). Clearly, China is not above such tactics either.
The TPP would allow for freer trade between the U.S. and Asian nations neighboring China. China refused to join the TPP. Maritime traffic will undoubtedly be increased as these countries engage in trade.
By not participating in the new trade agreement, China has an incentive to disrupt these trade routes.
The U.S.’s decision to join the TPP, was part of an approach to derail China’s aggressive expansion according to Patrick Cronin, advisor and director of the Asia Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security.
He adds however, that “over all, the White House wants to secure its legacy of managing a stable U.S.-China relationship despite differences. But even within that approach, we’re going to have to flex some muscle...These operations are not fixing the problem. These operations are to demonstrate our interests that we are working toward.”
The operation, however, is not without its critics.
The Obama Administration has been accused of being too short-sighted as its reactionary practices have done little to definitively alter the balance of power in the region.
Last year, an incident occurred when the Chinese chose to define a region of the South China Sea as an Air Defense Identification Zone. In response, the U.S. flew several B-52 bombers through the area. The U.S. did not follow up on this action, and many of America’s partners in the region have since adhered to China’s demarcation.
Officials at the Pentagon say that freedom-of-navigation passes are actually more common than we might imagine.
Chances are good that China is trying to ward off U.S. vessels in an attempt to control trade in the disputed waters.