A U.S. Navy warship sailed within 12 nautical miles of an artificial island built up by China in the South China Sea, U.S. officials said on Wednesday, the first such challenge to Beijing in the strategic waterway since U.S. President Donald Trump took office.
The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the USS Dewey traveled close to the Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands, among a string of islets, reefs and shoals over which China has territorial disputes with its neighbors.
The so-called freedom of navigation operation, which is sure to anger China, comes as Trump is seeking Beijing's cooperation to rein in ally North Korea's nuclear and missile programs.
Territorial waters are generally defined by U.N. convention as extending at most 12 nautical miles from a state's coastline.
Two US B-1 bombers flew over disputed waters in the East and South China Seas on Thursday, conducting a joint military operation with Japanese fighter jets amid escalating tensions with North Korea and souring relations with China.
The bombers were joined by two Japanese F-15 fighters and carried out a cooperative mission over the East China Sea -- an area both Japan and China claim as their own.
While joint flights between the two allied nations have become increasingly routine, this mission marked the first time US B-1 bombers from the Pacific Command have carried out an operation of this kind with Japanese fighters at night, according to a statement from US Pacific Air Forces.
Mattis’ visit to Vietnam also aimed at underlining America’s commitment to deeper defense cooperation with another key Southeast Asian claimant in the South China Sea. Today, Mattis thanked Vietnam for its support of United Nations sanctions on North Korea, which he acknowledged has cost Hanoi in bilateral trade, namely cheap coal imports.
Hanoi increasingly views America as a crucial counterbalance to Chinese maritime ambitions in adjacent waters, particularly as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations has failed to take a tougher collective position on the disputes.
The two sides also reportedly discussed freedom of navigation issues in the South China Sea, with a US emphasis on international rule of law and national sovereignty.
Just before Mattis’ arrival in the region, the US sent a strong signal in that direction. On January 20, the United States Navy deployed its guided missile destroyer USS Hopper within the 12-nautical mile radius of the Scarborough Shoal, a contested land feature in the South China Sea which has been under de facto control of China since 2012.
The shoal, which lies within the Philippines’ 200 nautical EEZ, is viewed by security analysts as a potential new flashpoint in the maritime area. The deployment was part of US’ Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs), which are aimed at challenging China’s maritime claims in the area.
In response, China accused the US of violating its “sovereignty” over the land feature, which has been declared as a “common fishing ground” by an Arbitral Tribunal at The Hague in mid-2016. China contends that the shoal is a full-fledged island capable of generating its own maritime jurisdictional zones.
The motivating factor, of course, was China. “China’s goal in the South China Sea appears to be a gradual extension of its sovereignty to a maritime space the size of India,” Anders Corr, editor of the just-released Great Powers, Grand Strategies: The New Game in the South China Sea, told the National Interest.
In view of this expansive vision, an “innocent passage” is a counterproductive response.
“In our department in Newport, we’re always taking leaders to task for ‘self-defeating behavior,’” James Holmes of the Naval War College e-mailed me on Monday, commenting for himself and not on behalf of the U.S. government. “The anonymous official quoted in press accounts as saying the Hopper passage was an ‘innocent passage’ is guilty of that behavior.”
“Innocent passage is something ships do when passing within 12 nautical miles of sovereign territory,” Holmes, co-author of Red Star Over the Pacific: China’s Rise and the Challenge to U.S. Maritime Strategy, points out. “So if we’re depicting the Hopper passage by Scarborough Shoal as an innocent passage, we are conceding precisely what a freedom-of-navigation operation is supposed to dispute: that China is the lawful sovereign over Scarborough and that it’s entitled to a 12-mile territorial sea around the shoal.”
Scarborough is well within the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines, and China is essentially asserting squatter’s rights. Moreover, Philippines vs. China, the July 2016 Hague decision applying the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, holds that the shoal does not confer a twelve-nautical-mile band of territorial water. “Our passes by Scarborough must show that they are not innocent in legal terms,” Holmes notes. “We must get our language straight, stay on message, and remind everyone regularly that the Hague tribunal smacked down China’s unlawful claims with extreme prejudice back in 2016. That’s how we avoid defeating ourselves.”
American officials, for years, have been characterizing freedom of navigation exercises around Chinese-held features as “innocent passages,” hoping not to rile Beijing. That strategy, unfortunately, has produced the opposite result.
The US Navy P-8A Poseidon jet was flying at 16,500 feet to get a view of low-lying coral reefs that have been turned into garrisons with five-storey buildings, large radar installations, power plants and runways sturdy enough to carry large military aircraft.
During the flight that was giving journalists from CNN a rare look at the islands, the crew was warned six times by the Chinese military to get out of their territory.
A voice said: “US military aircraft, this is China ... leave immediately and keep out to avoid any misunderstanding.”
Each time the aircraft was challenged by the Chinese military, the US Navy crew's response was the same.