IT HAS BEEN three years since the United States sailed a warship within 12-miles of Subi Reef, part of the South China Sea’s Spratly islands that China claims as the Nansha islands. Washington says the recent passage of the USS Lassen, a guided-missile destroyer, was to assert the rights of freedom of navigation in international waters, albeit, this Bystander notes, waters also claimed by China, Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines as their own.
For all Beijing’s bombastic denunciation, as geostrategic sparring goes, this was well advertised and came less than a couple of months after five PLA-Navy warships sailed just as close to the United States’ Aleutian islands in the Bering Sea.
Washington made it known some time in advance that it intended to carry out the operation in the Spratlys. The Kunming, the first of the PLA-Navy’s Type 052D advanced destroyers, has reportedly been trailing the Lassen for weeks and kept a measured distance as the U.S. warship sailed past Subi Reef.
Barring accidents, both navies — and their political bosses — will want to avoid a direct clash in the South China Sea. But that doesn’t mean the face-off between the two powers won’t be ratcheted up by other means.
China will likely continue to strengthen its presence on disputed reefs and islands. President Xi Jinping has said China has no intention to ‘militarize’ the area, but that does not exclude growing coast guard, maritime rescue, fisheries and natural resources facilities and operations there.
For its part, the United States has said it will continue to sail freedom-of-navigation passages. It already routinely flies surveillance aircraft over the South China Sea in airspace that China claims, and its subs operate under those waters. “We will fly, sail, and operate anywhere in the world that international law allows,” a U.S. defense department official told the French news agency AFP.
It has little option to do otherwise if it wants to retain its credibility as a security guarantor for its regional partners as it and Beijing jockey for position in the Pacific. Similarly, Beijing has to challenge every challenge to its maritime claims.