Q&A: What’s the impact of the U.S. ship sailing near China-held island?

Q&A: What’s the impact of the U.S. ship sailing near China-held island?

The Associated Press

Beijing reacted harshly to a U.S. warship sailing near one of its newly created islands in a disputed area of the South China Sea in late October 2015. The action did not spark a confrontation or roll back any Chinese island-building activities, but it sent a high-profile message to both Beijing and U.S. allies that Washington wants to test Chinese sovereignty assertions and ensure freedom of navigation.

Some questions and answers:

WHAT IS THE IMPACT?

As in previous incidents, Beijing is likely to voice its outrage for a time, before reasserting the wisdom of the government’s calculated approach to its crucial relationship with the U.S. However, the testy reaction underlines tensions in the strategically vital region through which about one-third of global trade passes. Frictions are likely to worsen as Washington’s renewed focus on Asia rubs up against Beijing’s increasingly robust assertions of its claim to virtually the entire sea and its islands, reefs and atolls. China says its sovereignty claims do not conflict with the rights of other nations to operate in the South China Sea, although the Defense Ministry accused the U.S. of abusing those rights.

WHAT DID THE U.S. NAVY DO?

The maneuver itself was relatively tame. The U.S. Navy sailed the guided missile destroyer USS Lassen past an artificial island created on Subi Reef in the Spratly archipelago. The route was within a 22-kilometer territorial limit that China might claim around the reef. However, international law permits “innocent passage” of warships through other countries’ territorial seas without any need for prior notification, and there was no indication the ship did anything other than pass through. Still, the U.S. said ahead of the trip that it was aimed at challenging any Chinese claims that the newly created islands are its sovereign territory.

WHY DID THE NAVY ACT?

The sail-by was intended to reinforce Washington’s insistence on freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea, parts of which are claimed not only by China but by the Brunei, Malaysia, Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam. While the U.S. says it takes no view on ownership claims, it insists that the man-made islands China has created do not constitute sovereign territory and cannot claim territorial seas. Until the legal status of South China Sea is settled once and for all, such incidents “will continue unabated,” said U.S. Naval Academy China expert Yu Maochun.

HOW DID CHINA RESPOND?

China reacted angrily, saying the sail-by was illegal, that it infringed on Chinese sovereignty and that it threatened the security of the island and the region. It said the maneuver would affect China-U.S. relations and summoned American Ambassador Max Baucus in Beijing for a high-level protest. It is unclear on what basis China claims the sail-by was illegal, partly because it has never clarified the basis of its claims to territory in the South China Sea. The Chinese response — limited so far only to rhetoric — suggests Beijing may tacitly acknowledge the freedom of navigation in the area, but does “not want the U.S. to make a regular practice of it,” said Phillip Saunders, director of the U.S. National Defense University’s Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs.

WHAT ABOUT THE CHINESE PUBLIC?

Chinese Internet forums lit up with calls for a hard line against the U.S. The official China Daily newspaper published an editorial accusing Washington of “stirring the waters at the risk of regional peace and stability” and of using coercion to challenge what it called China’s legitimate territorial claims. Public sentiment strongly favors China displaying its military superiority in the face of defiant acts by rival claimants, especially the Philippines and Vietnam, although Beijing has so far shied away from military escalation. Passions over the South China Sea pale in comparison to negative sentiment toward old rival Japan, with which China is competing over control of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea.

WHAT ARE THE LONG-TERM IMPLICATIONS?

China has said it will continue work on island-building projects now underway, including the construction of buildings, harbors and airstrips on top of them. However, Washington’s regional allies have been buoyed by the show of U.S. resolve that follows warming military ties with the Philippines, former foe Vietnam and others. That may stiffen the determination of China’s neighbors to stand up to Beijing’s assertiveness. Other players in the region, including Singapore and Indonesia, are wary of being caught up in a sharpening dispute between Washington and Beijing, and all sides are calling for negotiations on a long-term solution to head off the possibility of conflict.

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