Cliff Owen / AP

US warship patrols to continue, presenting China a tricky choice

Pentagon says Navy patrol of Chinese-claimed waters in South China Sea was ‘not a one-off event’

With the Pentagon promising that more U.S. ships will follow in the wake of the USS Lassen, the destroyer that on Tuesday crossed into Chinese-claimed territory in the disputed South China Sea, analysts say Beijing could soon face a difficult choices about how to respond — perhaps with more than just words.

The patrol was the most pointed U.S. challenge yet to China’s claim on 12-nautical-mile territory surrounding its man-made islands in the Spratly Archipelago. The Spratlys have been a flashpoint in the multinational island-building race that has seen China, along with regional rivals Vietnam and the Philippines, physically demarcate their claims in the resource-rich, strategically located sea.

Washington’s stated purpose in sending the Lassen through the Spratlys, an intention it first signaled several months ago, is to shore up the legal right for ships to pass through what it considers international waters. One senior U.S. defense official told Al Jazeera, “We conduct freedom of navigation operations on a regular basis around the world, and they are distinct from the question of sovereignty over these islands.”

In that light, the U.S. patrol was neither unprecedented nor meant to be provocative, said Bonnie Glaser, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who has consulted for the U.S. government on East Asia policy. The U.S. is “simply exercising the international right of freedom of navigation on the high seas” — something it has done for decades around the globe.

China sees things differently. On Tuesday the Chinese Foreign Ministry accused the U.S. of “deliberate provocation,” saying in a statement that its ships shadowed and monitored the Lassen until it completed what the ministry called an “illegal” tour of Chinese waters. “China strongly urges the U.S. side to conscientiously handle China’s serious representations, immediately correct its mistake and not take any dangerous or provocative acts that threaten China’s sovereignty and security interests,” the ministry said.

By day’s end, however, China had not taken any stronger action. And the Pentagon, which has consistently warned that island building in the Spratlys would escalate an already tense dispute, indicated that many more ships would follow the Lassen. “This is something that will be a regular occurrence, not a one-off event,” a Pentagon official told Reuters. “It’s not something that’s unique to China.”

The stakes for free navigation in the South China Sea extend far beyond international law. Many frame U.S. efforts to contain Chinese territorial claims as a geopolitical showdown between the world’s two largest economies and as part of the Obama administration’s pivot to Asia — a shift of U.S. resources and political capital toward China’s neighborhood. The waters are some of the busiest in the world, with more than one-third of global maritime traffic passing through the sea annually. Close to two-thirds of the energy supplies for South Korea and Japan, two key U.S. allies, pass through the South China Sea, as do 80 percent of China’s crude oil imports.

The area itself is valuable. The sea is said to hold over 7 million barrels of proven oil reserves and 900 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. The Chinese have projected that the sea could ultimately yield 130 billion barrels of oil, an amount that experts say would surpass any region of the world except Saudi Arabia.

“The U.S. and the rest of the countries in the region are not willing to allow the projection of power or resources that territory represents to be China’s,” said Elizabeth Economy, the director for Asia Studies at the Center on Foreign Relations. The U.S. may ultimately send the same message to each of the players in the South China dispute, but China’s effort is “so much larger in scale and scope than anything that’s ever been done before, so it was important to send the message up front,” she said.

The patrol came as fears mount over reports that China is beginning to militarize its territorial claims in the Spratlys — a prospect that would dramatically escalate tensions. Some were tempted to frame the Lassen’s voyage as a test of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent promise, made on a visit to Washington last month, that China “does not intend to pursue militarization.”

Most read China’s tempered response on Tuesday as another sign that Beijing has little interest in direct conflict with a superpower like the U.S., however much it insists it has a right to reclaim land in the South China Sea. But there appears to be some difference of opinion in Chinese policy circles, as represented by an anonymous opinion piece on Tuesday in the Beijing-funded Global Times.

China “should deal with Washington tactfully and prepare for the worst,” the author wrote. “This can convince the White House that China, despite its unwillingness, is not frightened to fight a war with the U.S. in the region and is determined to safeguard its national interests and dignity."

Whether that line resonates with many in China or not, Glaser said, “the reality is, unfortunately, that the Chinese will likely charge that the U.S. is the one militarizing the South China Sea. They’ll use it as justification for continuing to implement the ongoing policy they were going to proceed with, regardless of U.S. actions.”

Jamie McIntyre contributed reporting.

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