China has accused the United States of sending a warship without permission into what it said was its territorial waters in the disputed South China Sea, adding that it would take “necessary measures” to “safeguard its sovereignty.”
The Chinese Foreign Ministry said Saturday that the U.S. Navy’s USS Hopper guided-missile destroyer had sailed within 12 nautical miles (22 km) of what is known as Scarborough Shoal, a group of disputed islets that Beijing calls Huangyan Island, on Wednesday night.
Foreign Ministry Spokesman Lu Kang said that the Chinese Navy had identified the U.S. vessel and warned it to leave, according to a statement posted to the ministry’s website.
“What the U.S. vessel did violated China’s sovereignty and security interests, put the safety of Chinese vessels and personnel who were in the relevant waters for official duties under grave threat, and contravened the basic norms for international relations,” Lu said. “China is strongly dissatisfied with that and will take necessary measures to firmly safeguard its sovereignty.”
Washington has lambasted Beijing for its man-made islands in the South China Sea, with some home to military-grade airfields and weapons. The U.S. fears the outposts could be used to restrict free movement in the waterway — which includes vital sea lanes through which about $3 trillion in global trade passes each year — and has conducted several so-called freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) in the area.
Beijing has disputed this claim, saying the militarization of the outposts has been for self-defense purposes.
“China always respects and safeguards the freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea all countries are entitled to under international law,” Lu said. “But we firmly oppose any country using navigation and overflight freedom as an excuse to hurt China’s sovereignty and security interests. We strongly urge the U.S. side to immediately correct its mistake and stop making such provocative moves so as to avoid undermining China-U.S. relations and regional peace and stability.”
Meanwhile, China’s Defense Ministry said it had told the U.S. not to “cause trouble out of nothing” after the FONOP.
“We hope that the United States will respect China’s sovereignty, respect the efforts made by the countries within the region, and not cause trouble out of nothing or make waves,” Defense Ministry spokesman Wu Qian said in a statement, adding that China would intensify its patrols in the air and at sea.
Asked to confirm the patrol, the Pentagon said U.S. forces “operate in the Indo-Pacific region on a daily basis, including in the South China Sea.”
“All operations are conducted in accordance with international law and demonstrate that the United States will fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows,” Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Christopher Logan said. “We are continuing regular FONOPs, as we have routinely done in the past and will continue to do in the future.”
Scarborough Shoal, which is also claimed by Taipei and Manila and sits just 230 km (140 miles) from the Philippine coast, has long been the subject of speculation amid Beijing’s massive land-reclamation projects in the South China Sea.
China effectively seized the shoal — a prime fishing spot — from the Philippines in 2012 after a tense standoff. In the wake of this, and a 2016 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration that invalidated China’s claim of sovereignty over much of the South China Sea, the coral outcrop has become synonymous with the regional power struggle in the strategic waterway.
Beijing claims virtually the entire South China Sea, and has built up a series of man-made outposts in what the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) think tank has said is a bid to create “fully functioning air and naval bases.”
The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei also have overlapping claims in the waters.
Bonnie Glaser, an Asia expert at CSIS, said the U.S. freedom of navigation operations in the waters were unlikely to stop.
“Since the Trump administration started conducting FONOPs, they have held operations every six to eight weeks,” Glaser said. “Not all ops have been reported. Chinese actions such as warnings to ships and aircraft to keep away from Scarborough Shoal, beyond the 12 nautical mile limit, (will) likely continue. Those are excessive maritime claims that FONOPs are intended to challenge.”
But Glaser said she did not expect the latest patrol by the U.S. to embolden China to make a stronger push — including by reclaiming land — to take over Scarborough Shoal, which experts say Beijing has long coveted.
Analysts say building at Scarborough could create a large “strategic triangle” comprising Chinese-controlled Woody Island in the Paracel chain and its man-made outposts in the Spratly chain, giving Beijing the ability to police an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) in the South China Sea and effectively creating a “Chinese lake.”
While Beijing and Manila have a long history of maritime squabbles over sovereignty in the South China Sea, especially over the tiny shoal, those tensions have eased under the Philippine’s China-friendly leader Rodrigo Duterte.
“China is unlikely to dredge at Scarborough Shoal in the near term,” Glaser said. “Doing so would put at risk its improved relations with the Philippines under Duterte.”