Chinese foreign ministry says Washington acted illegally when USS Lassen entered waters near disputed Spratly archipelago
China has reportedly summoned the US ambassador after Washington launched a direct military challenge to Beijing’s territorial claims in the South China Sea with naval manoeuvres near two artificial islands.
State television reported that the Chinese vice-foreign minister, Zhang Yesui, had branded the move “extremely irresponsible” when meeting with the US ambassador to China, Max Baucus.
Chinese authorities said earlier they had monitored, followed and warned US warship USS Lassen as it “illegally” entered waters near the disputed reefs, and urged Washington to “immediately correct its mistake”.
The USS Lassen began its mission through waters near the disputed Spratly archipelago at about 6.40am local time on Tuesday.
“The operation has begun … It will be complete within a few hours,” a senior US defence official told Reuters.
The guided-missile destroyer reportedly received orders to travel within 12 nautical miles (22.2km, or 13.8 miles) of the Spratlys’ Mischief and Subi reefs, which are at the heart of a controversial Chinese island building campaign that has soured ties between Washington and Beijing. Chinese officials were not informed of Tuesday’s mission, US officials said.
Addressing journalists in Beijing on Tuesday afternoon, Lu Kang, a foreign ministry spokesman, said China was strongly dissatisfied with America’s actions, which he described as a threat to China’s sovereignty.
But he refused to be drawn on whether China would consider a military response. “I will not answer hypothetical questions,” Lu said. “We hope that the US side will not take actions that will backfire.”
Lu warned that further “provocative actions” might lead to accelerated Chinese construction in the South China Sea: “It would be a pity for us to realise that we have to strengthen and speed up relevant construction activities.”
The Chinese embassy in Washington said the concept of “freedom of navigation” should not be used as an excuse for muscle-flexing and the US should “refrain from saying or doing anything provocative and act responsibly in maintaining regional peace and stability”.
Earlier, as reports of the freedom of navigation operation emerged, China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, warned Washington to “act prudently to avoid provocation”.
China’s official news agency, Xinhua, said Wang had urged the US to “think twice, and not act rashly and make trouble out of nothing”.
Ian Storey, a South China Sea expert at Singapore’s Institute of South East Asian Studies, said Washington’s decision to deploy a warship rather than a smaller vessel underlined its determination to issue a powerful signal of intent.
“They’ve gone in heavy. There is not much else heavier than that except an aircraft carrier,” he said. “They want to send a very clear message to China that they are serious about this.”
Rory Medcalf, the head of the National Security College at the Australian National University, said the operation was “a warning for China not to overplay its hand in signalling that America is not welcome in the South China Sea”.
Storey said the “$64,000 question” was how Beijing would respond to the long-anticipated US move, which follows months of escalating tensions in the region, where Beijing has overlapping territorial claims with countries including Vietnamand the Philippines.
“China will have to react – it cannot not react to this,” Storey said. “Nationalism in China is such that China will be expected to make a robust response to this.
“This is why the US has had to consider these operations very carefully,” he added. “They’d have to take into account how China would respond. And if China does move to challenge these operations using coastguard operations or naval ships then that raises the risk of a collision or worse.”
China’s military buildup in the South China Sea – including the construction of a 3km runway capable of supporting fighter jets and transport planes – has become a major source of tension between Beijing and Washington.
Subi and Mischief reefs were submerged at high tide before China began a massive dredging project in 2014. It now claims a 12 nautical mile territorial limit around the artificial islands, although the UN Convention on the Law of the Seasays such limits cannot be set around man-made islands built on previously submerged reefs.
The US president, Barack Obama, said he had held “candid discussions” with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, over the issue during Xi’s recent state visit to the US.
However, Medcalf said Tuesday’s operation, for which the navy had been preparing for months, indicated Washington was unsatisfied with the outcome of those talks.
“Clearly there was a decision to wait until after the Xi Jinping visit and I suspect to base American behaviour on the outcomes of that visit,” he said.
Speaking earlier this month, officials in Beijing cautioned the US against “provocative” actions in the South China Sea. “China will never allow any country to violate China’s territorial waters and airspace in the South China Sea,” foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said.
China claims most of the South China Sea, one of the world’s busiest sea lanes, although Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines and Taiwan have rival claims. Beijing says the islands will have mainly civilian uses as well as undefined defence purposes.
But satellite photographs have shown the construction of three military-length airstrips by China in the Spratlys, including one each on Mischief and Subi reefs.
Pentagon officials have spent months lobbying for the White House to take a harder line on China’s actions in the South China Sea, which is a key global shipping lane, through which more than $5tn of world trade passes every year.
“There are billions of dollars of commerce that float through that region of the world,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest told a news briefing. “Ensuring that free flow of commerce … is critical to the global economy.”
Ashton Carter, the US defence secretary, has accused Beijing of constructing “massive outposts” in the South China Sea that increase “the risk of miscalculation or conflict” in the region.
“Make no mistake, we will fly, sail and operate wherever international law permits,” Carter said this month. “We will do that in the time and place of our choosing.”
Pentagon officials said Tuesday’s mission, the first such operation since 2012, would followed by many others.
Earlier reports said the ship would likely be accompanied by a US navy P-8A surveillance plane and possibly a P-3 surveillance plane, which have been conducting regular surveillance missions in the region.
“The United States’ credibility is at stake here,” said Storey. “If it just did a one-off symbolic drive-by then US credibility suffers in the region so this I think is going to be the first of many such operations in the future.”
Pentagon officials say the US regularly conducts freedom of navigation operations around the world to challenge excessive maritime claims.
In early September, China sent naval vessels within 12 miles of the Aleutian islands off Alaska. China said they were there as part of a routine drill following exercises with Russia.
The Australian defence minister, Marise Payne, said her country had not been involved in Tuesday’s manoeuvres but indicated support for the US move.
“It is important to recognise that all states have a right under international law to freedom of navigation and freedom of overflight, including in the South China Sea. Australia strongly supports these rights,” Payne said in a statement.