The patrol by the USS Lassen prompted an angry response by Beijing and came just weeks after Xi met with president Barack Obama in Washington, where he said China “does not intend to pursue militarization" of the area. The decision to send in the warship -- the most direct challenge to China over its island building in the waters -- may change that.
Tuesday’s action brought the US more formally into the territorial spats between China and some Southeast Asian nations, and cemented the expectation it would act as a policeman and protector in the area. While the patrols are probably being welcomed by smaller countries who feel China is encroaching on their own claims, they also set the stage for similar assertions of authority by Beijing.
“It is certainly a signal of a downturn in the US belief that China is going to sign on to the prevailing view of international law without this type of navigational assertion," said Mira Rapp-Hooper, a senior fellow on Asia-Pacific security at the Center for a New American Security in Washington. “China has been very much aware of the fact that the US was considering these operations."
The risk is that a greater presence of military planes and ships sparks a clash, however unintended, analysts said. They warned the tensions could further erode broader US-China ties and efforts to manage disputes over cyber-security and human rights. Xi and Obama are due to cross paths at several international meetings next month, including an Asia-Pacific leaders summit in the Philippines.
The tensions in the South China Sea reflect broader strains as China becomes a more expansive military power in a region that the US has dominated in security terms since the second world war. The US says it is not seeking to contain China, while China says the US policy known as the “pivot" to Asia is precisely about that.
“This deepens the trust deficit between the two countries and reinforces the drift toward strategic rivalry," said Ian Storey, a senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. “US credibility is on the line here. Countries have been watching very closely. It can’t be a one- off, symbolic sail past these features. It has to be conducted on a regular basis."
The USS Lassen came within 12 nautical miles of Subi Reef in the Spratly island chain in order to show the US doesn’t believe the feature qualifies for such a territorial zone under international law.
The roughly hour-long patrol, which did not go deeply into the 12-mile zone, was the first of what the Pentagon envisions will be repeated transits of the waters, according to two US defense officials who spoke on condition of anonymity. The aim is to conduct such patrols about twice every four months, one of the officials said.
China said it “shadowed and warned" the USS Lassen off -- it sent the missile destroyer Lanzhou and patrol vessel Taizhou to the area-- and its foreign minister called the US action illegal. Vice foreign minister Zhang Yesui summoned US Ambassador Max Baucus, China Central Television reported, and said the US should “cherish the hard-won momentum of development" in ties.
China should “prepare for the worst," the official Global Times newspaper said in an editorial on Wednesday. “This can convince the White House that China, despite its unwillingness, is not frightened to fight a war with the US in the region, and is determined to safeguard its national interests and dignity."
Until now, China has mostly relied on the coast guard to assert its claims to the waters, rather than its navy, though it has sailed destroyers through the area.
“If the US warships come back more frequently and stick around longer, the Chinese side would likely strengthen military facilities on the artificial islands and take necessary action," said Zhu Feng, director of the China Center for Collaborative Studies of the South China Sea at Nanjing University. “The escalation of the maritime situation now is the big irony of the Xi-Obama summit and shows how challenging the South China Sea issue can be to the Sino-US bilateral relationship."
China bases its claims to more than 80% of the sea, a conduit for trade and energy supplies between Europe and Asia, on a so-called nine-dash line drawn on a 1947 map. Its reclamation program had created 2,900 acres in the Spratlys as of June, according to the Pentagon. China contends its building of airstrips and other facilities is primarily for civilian purposes, though it has installed artillery on some reefs.
Protecting freedom of navigation resonates in the region because the South China Sea hosts more than $5 trillion of shipping each year and is home to about a 10th of the world’s annual fishing catch. Some of the sea is also claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan.
“The region is basically happy the US is doing this but they obviously don’t want the US to get too provocative," said Richard Bitzinger, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. “They will be silently glad the US is doing this."
China may respond to the patrol by declaring an air defense identification zone over the waters, said Malcolm Davis, an assistant professor in China-Western relations at Bond University on Australia’s Gold Coast.
China’s foreign ministry said in May it reserves the right to establish such an air zone. In November 2013 it set up a zone covering islands in the East China Sea also claimed by Japan, prompting the US to fly B-52 bombers into the area to challenge its enforcement.
“A Chinese attempt to enforce an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) over the South China Sea would increase tensions with its neighbours, most notably Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia, and they would place increasing pressure on Washington not to back down," he said. Bloomberg