Wed, Oct 28, 2015 - Page 1 News List

US ship passes disputed China islands

‘EXTREMELY IRRESPONSIBLE’:Chinese Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Zhang Yesui summoned US ambassador to China Max Baucus and urged the US to cease patrols

AFP, BEIJING

A handout photograph released by the US Navy shows the USS Lassen conducting a trilateral naval exercise with the Turkish and South Korean navies in waters south of the Korean Peninsula on May 25.

Photo: EPA

The US yesterday defied China by sending a warship close to artificial islands China is building in disputed waters, prompting Beijing to furiously denounce what it called a threat to its sovereignty.

The USS Lassen passed within 12 nautical miles (22.2km) — the normal limit of territorial waters around natural land — of at least one of the formations Beijing claims in the South China Sea.

Chinese authorities “monitored, shadowed and warned” the guided-missile destroyer in the Spratly islands (Nansha Islands, 南沙群島) — which Taiwan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Brunei also state claims to — Beijing said.

Washington’s long-awaited move to assert freedom of navigation might escalate the dispute over the strategically vital waters, where Beijing has been transforming reefs and outcrops into artificial islands with potential military use.

China claims sovereignty over almost the whole of the area, raising concerns it could one day seek to dictate who might transit its bustling sea lanes.

The dispute has raised fears of clashes in an area through which one-third of the world’s oil passes.

The US action was part of the nation’s “routine operations in the South China Sea in accordance with international law,” a US official said.

“We will fly, sail and operate anywhere in the world that international law allows,” he added.

Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Lu Kang (陸慷) blasted the exercise, saying the ship had “illegally entered” the waters near the islands “without receiving permission from the Chinese government.”

Beijing “resolutely opposes any country using freedom of navigation and overflight as a pretext for harming China’s national sovereignty and security interests,” he said, adding: “[China will] staunchly defend its territorial sovereignty.”

China’s Xinhua news agency condemned a “flagrant and baseless provocation” that added to regional instability.

However, despite the Chinese rhetoric, analysts said more such operations could be expected.

Beijing’s so far limited response showed that it had had “its bluff called,” said Rory Medcalf, director of the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute in Sydney.

“The US, and its allies and partners, should now help the Chinese leadership in saving face, by emphasizing that freedom of navigation operations are normal, not extraordinary,” he said.

There have been repeated confrontations in the area between Chinese vessels and boats from some of its neighbors who assert rights to the waters, particularly the Philippines and Vietnam.

Both are members of ASEAN, which has long called on China to negotiate a code of conduct in the region, as are fellow claimants Brunei and Malaysia. Taiwan also states claims over part of the sea.

Manila has infuriated the world’s second-largest economy by taking the dispute to a UN tribunal, and Philippine President Benigno Aquino III said the US action demonstrated that “the balance of power says that there is not just a single voice that must be adhered to.”

Beijing’s South China Sea reclamations have been seen as an attempt to assert its claims by establishing physical facts in the water, but Aquino said: “There is no de facto changing of the reality on the ground.”

Beijing has repeatedly said the construction work is primarily for civilian purposes, and Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平), during a visit to Washington last month, pledged that the nation would not militarize the area.

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