China denounced the United States for sending a warship close to an island that China claims and occupies in the South China Sea, declaring this was dangerous “brinkmanship” in waters that carry half the entire world’s cargo, worth more than $5 trillion a year.
U.S. officials said Tuesday’s “freedom of navigation” exercise by a guided-missile destroyer was completely legal and routine, and was not meant to question China’s territorial claims.
The USS Lassen, escorted by American aircraft, passed within 12 nautical miles (20 kilometers) of a small reef that China has been expanding into a larger island through large-scale dredging operations.
U.S. officials said there were no incidents during the cruise by the Lassen, and that a Chinese vessel monitored the American ship’s passage from a safe distance.
A commentary by the official Xinhua news agency, however, said the U.S. action was “a willful and harmful” brinkmanship, intended “to flex U.S. muscles at China’s doormat and reassert Washington’s dominant presence in the region.”
McCain: Long overdue
In Washington, Senator John McCain, a decorated war hero who served in the Navy and was held prisoner during the Vietnam War, said the U.S. naval maneuver was a long-overdue gesture.
“As China mounts increasingly routine challenges to the freedom of the seas through the Asia-Pacific region,” McCain said, “it is more important than ever that the United States fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows. And the South China Sea must be no exception.”
He called for regular air and naval patrols in the weeks and months ahead to make clear “the U.S. commitment to uphold freedom of the seas.”
U.S. allies in the region welcomed the American ship’s passage near the disputed Spratly Islands, although in more cautious terms.
Military officials in Washington said the approach to the Chinese-held Subi reef in the South China Sea was not related to questions of sovereignty over the islands there that also are claimed by Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines.
Chinese commentators drew an opposite conclusion, declaring that the U.S. naval mission was illegal, irresponsible and dangerous, and that it broke “Washington’s pledge of not taking sides in the South China Sea disputes.”
A statement Xinhua issued in Beijing, signed by two of the agency’s correspondents, said, in part: “With trillions of dollars’ worth of goods traversing the patch of water every year, the South China Sea is vital both to global trade and to China’s development. Beijing has no reason to make trouble that might block one of its own arteries of trade.”
Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said the Lassen “illegally entered” Chinese waters.
American officials had indicated weeks ago that the Navy would send a ship into the disputed territorial waters.
About 200 Chinese troops are believed to be stationed on the Subi reef, which is naturally above water only at low tide.
Action was expected
Sheila Smith, senior fellow for Japan studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, said the U.S. naval activity had been expected.
China’s reaction, Smith noted, suggests “that they are not ready to peacefully resolve these disputes but, in fact, their buildup and the presence of Chinese military on these islands suggests that they want a fait accompli. They just simply want to occupy the islands.”
Other claimants to the South China Sea islands cannot compete with China’s growing naval and air power, she said, adding, “I don’t think the United States should stand back,” because the Americans have “one of the navies … that others in the region look to – to set the tone and to lead.”
In Manila, Philippines President Benigno Aquino said, “Any movement through this particular body of water should not be hampered by any particular entity.”
Japan said it continues to be concerned about China’s activities in disputed territories and waters. “We’re closely coordinating our intelligence information with the United States,” chief cabinet secretary Yoshihide Suga said in Tokyo.