China: Navigating South China Sea Tensions

Published on October 27, 2015

Earlier this morning, the USS Lassen, a US Navy Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer, passed through the disputed 12 nautical mile territorial limit of Subi Reef, one of the artificial shoals claimed by China as its territory in the South China Sea.

The Lassen barely spent an hour inside the 12 mile limit, but the White House issued a statement to make sure the point was made. The Chinese in response issued a formal statement of protest against the US “deliberate provocation” and called the US ambassador, Max Baucus, into the foreign ministry for good measure.

*** But while the defiant public exchanges between Washington and Beijing have understandably generated a number of alarming headlines and alerts in the press, the US actions were already – including even the identity of the ship that might be used – quietly flagged through back channels between the two sides, and came as no surprise to policymakers in Beijing, who are looking to take the military challenge in stride (see SGH 10/20/14, “China: Deals and Twelve-Mile Warnings”). ***

*** Indeed from what we understand, National Security Advisor Susan Rice called China’s State Councilor Yang Jiechi at midnight last night to inform him personally the USS Lassen would be exercising its right of “innocent passage” within the 12 mile limit of the artificial islands. The private warning and call – coupled with the public announcement – is intended, and being interpreted by Beijing to mean, the US wishes to avoid direct conflict. The action is clearly a strong signal, but both sides will leave it at that, and are taking extreme care to avert any accident or unintended escalations. ***

To further dampen down tensions, the US Navy issued a statement this morning that the US Navy will also be conducting patrols through “other disputed areas” in the South China Sea, including patrols near artificial island structures also being built by Vietnam and the Philippines in the Spratly Islands.

China, in turn, has also carefully steered clear of any serious military saber rattling, while nevertheless maintaining today’s actions will simply reinforce their determination to continue with Beijing’s reclamation of the Nansha (Spratly) Islands as planned.

It was also noteworthy that the Lassen was sent to sail past the Subi Reef in the disputed Chinese islands. It is a “low-tide elevation,” meaning it is naturally submerged at high tide. US Navy sources noted to the US press that under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, it means any ships are allowed to operate freely without prior consultation.

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