China denounced what it called a “dangerous and provocative” act Tuesday after an American warship sailed within 12 nautical miles of a Chinese-built artificial island at a center of regional dispute over maritime territory and sea routes.
The incident reflects rising tensions between the United States and China over Beijing’s aggressive program of land reclamation and construction on rocks and reefs in the Spratly archipelago in the South China Sea, whose shores include Vietnam, Taiwan and the Philippines.
The U.S. naval action was intended to uphold the principle of freedom of navigation in international waters, American officials said, and underscores that Washington does not accept China’s claim to territorial waters around the man-made islands.
The decision to send the U.S. ship followed months of debate in Washington over how to find a balance between standing up to China and provoking a spiral of confrontation and regional militarization. Last month, Beijing warned that it would “never allow any country” to violate what it considers its territorial waters and airspace around the islands.
Vietnam formally accused China of violating its sovereignty and a recent confidence-building pact on Saturday by landing a plane on an airstrip Beijing has built in a contested part of the South China Sea. Foreign Ministry spokesman Le Hai Binh said China had conducted a test-flight to the airfield, "built illegally on Fiery Cross Reef, which is part of Vietnam's Spratlys".
In a statement, he called it "a serious infringement of the sovereignty of Vietnam on the Spratly archipelago, contrary to the common perception of high-ranking leaders of the two countries and (to) an agreement on the basic principles for directly solving maritime issues between Vietnam and China".
China claims almost all the South China Sea, which is believed to have huge deposits of oil and gas, and through which about $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes every year, and has been building up military facilities on the islands it controls.
A teenage singer made headlines in China and on her home island of Taiwan this weekend, but not for the winsome K-pop music that she hoped would attract fans. Instead, a glum, shaken apology after a controversy over a flag landed the singer, Chou Tzu-yu, in the maw of tensions between China and Taiwan, just as the island voted to elect an independence-leaning president on Saturday.
The uproar over Ms. Chou’s apology was so intense that the president-elect, Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party, addressed the controversy in her first news conference after declaring victory.
“Over the past couple of days some news has shaken society,” Ms. Tsai said in a televised news conference. “A performer who was developing in South Korea, a 16-year-old girl, was set upon for holding the national flag. This has angered Taiwanese people.”
Many Chinese bristle at the idea that Taiwan is not part of their country, and when images spread recently of Ms. Chou waving the flag of Taiwan while appearing on a South Korean television show, she became the target of nationalist Chinese ire. Chinese Internet users have demanded that she and her band, Twice, be banned from performing in China, although the images were two months old.
The Navy challenged China and other countries’ “excessive” attempts to restrict navigation in the South China Sea on Saturday, sailing the guided missile destroyer USS Curtis Wilbur near disputed islands there, according to the Pentagon.
The “freedom of navigation operation” took the vessel within 12 miles of Triton Island, said Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman. The operation took place late Friday ET. The Curtis Wilbur’s passage makes good on pledges by President Obama and Defense Secretary Ash Carter to assert legitimate claims to sail freely in international waters, Davis said. There were no Chinese ships in the area when the Curtis Wilbur sailed past.
“This operation demonstrated, as the president and secretary have stated, that we will fly, sail and operate anywhere international law allows,” Davis said. “That is true in the South China Sea, as in other places around the globe.”
The South China Sea has become a flashpoint as China and countries in the region seek control of trade routes and mineral deposits beneath the seafloor. China has been hauling massive amounts of sand and other material to build on reefs and other features, setting up landing strips.
“This operation was about challenging excessive maritime claims that restrict the rights and freedoms of the United States and others, not about territorial claims to land features,” Davis said. “The United States takes no position on competing sovereignty claims between the parties to naturally formed land features in the South China Sea. We do take a strong position on protecting the rights, freedoms and lawful uses of the sea and airspace guaranteed to all countries. All maritime claims must comply with international law.”
Satellite images show China may be building a powerful new radar system on a disputed island in the South China Sea, which could have worrisome military uses in monitoring -- and potentially trying to control -- a strategically vital waterway, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
Gregory Poling, head of the Asian Maritime Transparency Initiative at CSIS, said the images appear to show a high-frequency radar installation being built on Cuarteron Reef, one of seven islands China has recently expanded through a massive land reclamation program in the Spratly chain.
"If it is an HF radar, then it would enormously boost China’s capacity to monitor ships and aircraft in the South China Sea," Poling wrote by email. "Cuarteron is the logical place for such an installation because it is the southernmost of China’s features in the Spratlys, meaning that it would be the best place if you wanted early warning radar to give notice of ships or planes coming up from the Strait of Malacca and other areas to the south such as Singapore.