The US Navy deliberately avoided military drills or other actions that could have further inflamed tensions with Beijing during a patrol last week near islands China has built in the South China Sea, US officials said.
“We wanted to assert our rights under international law, but not to the point where we were poking the Chinese in the eye, or where it would unnecessarily escalate the situation,” a US official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The official said the destroyer USS Lassen turned off its fire control radars while transiting within 12 nautical miles (22km) of the Subi Reef (Jhubi Reef 渚碧礁 )and avoided any military operations during that time, including helicopter launches or other drills.
Numerous experts said this cautious approach could in fact reinforce China’s claim to sovereignty over the artificial islands in the Spratly Islands (Nansha Islands, 南沙群島).
However, the US official disputed that assertion.
“It was a freedom-of-navigation operation that was not meant to inflame the situation, which is why they did the transit the way they did,” the US official said.
The Lassen’s commanding officer, Commander Robert Francis Jr, on Thursday told reporters that his ship went within six to seven nautical miles of the artificial island.
He said the radar was operating normally at the time for “situational awareness,” and acknowledged the US Navy did not fly helicopters. He described it as both a freedom-of-navigation and a “transit” operation.
China reacted angrily to the patrol, which followed months of US preparation, despite its lack of military drills.
However, analysts said that if the Lassen failed to take such actions or even to loiter or collect intelligence within the zone, the operation would have resembled what is known as “innocent passage” and could have reinforced, rather than challenged, China’s claim to a territorial limit around the reef.
“Innocent passage” occurs when one country’s ship quickly transits another country’s territorial waters — and can only take place in waters belonging to another country.
“If the Lassen didn’t do anything but transit, then this Freedom of Navigation Operation didn’t actually assert what they had led us to believe it was supposed to: that Subi Reef doesn’t get a territorial sea,” said Greg Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think-tank.
Hofstra University professor of constitutional law Julian Ku wrote in the Lawfare blog that Washington had chosen the weakest type of freedom-of-navigation operation available, apparently at the bidding of the White House.
“By limiting the USS Lassen’s transit to an ‘innocent passage,’ the US is implicitly recognizing that China is entitled to a 12 nautical mile territorial sea around its artificial island on Subi Reef,” he said.
The White House declined to comment on details of the operation. A senior administration official called it “consistent with the way we regularly conduct freedom-of-navigation operations globally.”
Underscoring the issue’s complexity, Pentagon officials have given conflicting descriptions over the last week of the Lassen’s maneuver.
A US official speaking to Reuters last week described the patrols as an “innocent passage” operation, but later said that had been a mistake.
Pentagon spokesman Captain Jeff Davis insisted to reporters on Wednesday that the patrol was not an “innocent passage.” Pressed further on the issue on Thursday, he declined to explicitly restate that position or elaborate.
A US official argued that China — which described the US patrol as “illegal” — was not seizing on the absence of military activities as a sign that Washington now accepted its sovereignty over the artificial islands.
“It didn’t change anything in the way it was received. What the Chinese took away was that we steamed through what they believe is their waters,” the official said.
Council on Foreign Relations fellow Adam Klein and Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security senior fellow Mira Rapp Hooper said in a joint paper that the lack of clarity over the operation was a problem.
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