The US just challenged China in the South China Sea and… nothing happened

The USS Lassen coming into view.
The USS Lassen coming into view.
Image: Flicker user John J. Mike/CC-BY-2.0
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Updated Oct. 27 at 3:00 pm in Hong Kong with the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s statement. This article has been corrected.

The United States sent a warship through disputed waters claimed by several countries, but which China considers entirely its own territory, and had pledged to defend. The USS Lassen, a guided-missile destroyer, sailed within 12 nautical miles of an island built on the Subi reef in the Spratly islands, a US defense official told USA Today.

China has transformed once submerged reefs in disputed waters in the South China Sea into islands that it claims as its own territory. Because the USS Lassen passed within 12 nautical miles of the man-made islands, the distance international maritime laws define as an island’s sovereign waters, the move essentially demonstrates that the US does not respect these claims.

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Before the ship sailed near the Subi reef, Beijing warned the US not to undertake what it would view as provocative acts. ”We advise the US to think again and before acting, not act blindly or make trouble out of nothing,” said China foreign minister Wang Yi, according to Reuters. US-based China experts pointed to the possible need for ”escalation control,” saying the US could be met by the Chinese navy.

Instead, though, the USS Lassen moved through the area without incident. Asked about the situation, Zhu Haiquan, a spokesman at the Chinese embassy in Washington, told the Associated Press that China respects freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. But, he stressed, “freedom of navigation and overflight should not be used as excuse to flex muscle and undermine other countries’ sovereignty and security.”

The Chinese Foreign Ministry said later on Tuesday that USS Lassen had been monitored, followed, and warned, and urged the US to “not take any dangerous or provocative acts that threaten China’s sovereignty and security interests.”

For the past two years, China has been on a building spree in the disputed territory, essentially willing islands into existence by dredging sand from the sea floor and piling it atop submerged reefs.

Chinese dredging vessels are purportedly seen in the waters around Mischief Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.
Chinese dredging vessels seen in the waters around Mischief Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.
Image: Reuters/US Navy

Then it has topped them with helicopter and airplane landing strips, and fortified buildings, including atop the Subi reef:

China’s explanations for the activity have varied from “providing better weather forecasts” to “better service” for the international ships sailing through the waters to “being bullied” by neighbors into the building. But the claims have been disputed by its neighbors and questioned by the US.

Controversy in the South China Sea dates back to China’s establishment of the nine-dash line at the end of World War Two, which claims most of the busy waterway for China. Vietnam and the Philippines also have competing claims in the area of the Spratly Islands.

The nine-dash line, China now insists, has always been the outer line of China’s territorial waters. But historical maps from China show Hainan Island as China’s southern territory. Old maps, though, don’t carry much weight in the current territorial dispute, maritime experts say.

Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, and the Philippines have also occupied some of the Spratly’s 200 land features, and the US Navy has called for all nations to halt militarization of the important shipping conduit.

Today’s showdown-that-wasn’t is reminiscent of an earlier US challenge to China’s claims in the East China Sea. Chinese air force officials warned that planes that violated the country’s new “air defense identification zone” around the disputed Senkaku Islands could be shot down when it was established two years ago. But after the US flew two B-52 bombers through the area, China’s issued a terse statement, but no rebuke and no military action.

An earlier version of this article mistakenly identified an earlier US challenge in China’s air defense identification zone as occurring in the South China Sea, not the East China Sea.